Springboks set to bury jinx
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)
Johannesburg - South Africa are favoured to bury an FNB stadium jinx on Saturday by defeating Argentina in the 2013 Rugby Championship opener.
The Springboks have twice played at the 95 000-seat Soweto venue that hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, and fell 29-22 and 32-16 to the New Zealand All Blacks.
Originally set for central city Bloemfontein, the Argentina Test was moved to form part of a Nelson Mandela Sports Day with the national football team playing Burkina Faso earlier.
Mandela, 95, the first black president of the republic and a worldwide icon, is in a Pretoria hospital more than two months after being admitted for a recurring lung infection.
Although "critically ill", an official announcement last weekend said the revered figure known to South Africans by his clan name 'Madiba' is making "slow but steady" progress.
While president, Mandela had a huge influence on rugby and football, inspiring the Springboks to win the 1995 World Cup and Bafana Bafana (The Boys) to win the Africa Cup of Nations one year later.
Honouring the elder statesman includes transforming the Soweto stadium from a football pitch to a rugby pitch during a 90-minute break between the internationals.
While debutants Los Pumas proved competitive in the southern hemisphere tournament last year, they remain the weaklings of a quartet completed by Australia.
They have also been hit by late injury blows with inspirational No 8 and skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and loosehead prop Marcos Ayerza forced to withdraw.
Leonardo Senatore is the loose-forward replacement, veteran centre Felipe Contepomi is the stand-in skipper, and young Matias Diaz enters the front row.
South Africa warmed up by defeating Italy, Scotland and Samoa in a tournament they hosted and 13 of the starters against the Pacific islanders in the final are retained.
Duane Vermeulen replaces long-term casualty Pierre Spies at No 8 and Juandre Kruger regains the lock slot he temporarily ceded to Flip van der Merwe.
The replacements include scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, 31, back in the green-and-gold mix after being part of the side beaten by Australia in the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals.
Du Preez is among seven foreign-based stars in the matchday 23 - a sign of the tough economic times as South Africans are lured abroad by far fatter salaries.
Although coach Heyneke Meyer kept faith with Ulster scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, Du Preez will play part of the game and is seen as a key cog in the 2015 World Cup plan.
"Fourie has been a world-class player since I started coaching him at the Bulls when he was a teenager. His small touches on the ball are brilliant and he has lost none of them."
Meyer says he is seeking improvement in all areas after ultimately comfortable wins over Italy (44-10), Scotland (30-17) and Samoa (56-23) last June.
Since those wins, the scrum laws have changed to crouch-bind-set, consigning the 'hit' to history and putting greater emphasis on cohesion and endurance.
Springboks scrum coach and former France prop Pieter de Villiers admitted that all Test front rowers must brace for a steep learning curve.
"It is now very important for the scrum to stand together and have endurance and it is going to become a much tougher battle," he stressed.
Argentina are famed for the 'bajada' scrum with the eight forwards working as a unit and channelling power through the hooker.
"The Pumas' passion for scrumming will always be there - they are short, stocky guys, difficult to move, and we expect them to be strong come Saturday."
While there may not be a big gap between the packs in the set pieces and loose exchanges, the Springboks backs appear stronger.
Labelled a conservative, Meyer surprised critics by choosing adventurous fullback Willie le Roux, and wings Bjorn Basson and Bryan Habana and centres JJ Engelbrecht and Jean de Villiers possess pace and power.
The Argentine backline missed injured Juan Martin Hernandez for much of last season, but it was too predictable and leaden footed, and many parts of the unit remain.