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‘Top two’ place vital for Boks

2012-08-22 15:46
Cape Town - Completing the double over Argentina in Mendoza on Saturday will be an essential step in South Africa’s journey to ensuring a place among the top two teams, come the end of the maiden Castle Rugby Championship.

Of course that stubborn school of more unforgiving of Springbok supporters will be insisting on “title or bust” ... but is it realistic, when you think deeply about it, to expect a team under such transition to be capable of eclipsing the world-champion All Blacks as early as this year?

I would argue that in Heyneke Meyer’s first season as head coach, a more fitting target would be to ensure the runners-up slot behind likeliest winners New Zealand - perhaps with the additional satisfaction of ensuring bilateral equity in 2012 by winning one of the Dunedin or Soweto meetings (more feasibly the latter).

If that sounds a little unambitious to some Bok diehards, it should be placed in the context of the Boks’ current ranking still as only third in both the southern hemisphere and world behind the All Blacks and, more irksomely, the Wallabies.

So if South Africa do manage to finish at least second in the Championship, they would almost certainly also leapfrog Australia on the global ladder.

That would serve important notice of “progress”, because the Boks have finished bottom in each of the last two years of the old Tri-Nations competition after winning it in 2009 with such now-departed luminaries as Jaque Fourie, Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha still at the top of their games.

Simply avoiding the wooden spoon for the first time in three years, by ending in third above unfancied newcomers the Pumas, would not be considered good enough - and perhaps quite rightly so.

One good thing to come out of the first round of fixtures last Saturday, from a South African perspective, was that while the Boks disappointingly just failed to land the four-try bonus point, the Wallabies also failed by a whisker to bank a losing one in the 27-19 loss to New Zealand in Sydney.

Somewhere along the line, Argentina, likeliest before their animated home faithful, will be hoping for at least one morale-boosting win in their first season ... and of the three opponents visiting their country, they will doubtless feel their best sniff comes against either the Wallabies or Boks.

So Jean de Villiers’s team unexpectedly crashing to Argentina in Mendoza - it would represent their first ever loss to that country - would also greatly boost Aussie chances of eventually ending as a top-half team amongst the tourney quartet.

Such a result on Saturday (kickoff 21:10 SA time), painful as it may seem, cannot completely be discounted: not when the Boks are suffering, as they are, through an increasing absence of their “next tier” of reasonably experienced personnel since the retirements of various long-serving icons.

Bismarck du Plessis, on Saturday, was just the latest player in this category to fall prey to long-term injury, joining others like Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and (the self-exiled rather than crocked) Jaque Fourie as customers who should be fighting the good fight as key senior presences during this rebuilding phase.

Instead the Boks, for all the excitement offered up by Young Turks like Eben Etzebeth, Marcell Coetzee and Pat Lambie, will carry some element of vulnerability to all comers for at least the next few weeks.

Throw in the fact that, at the time of writing, Bryan Habana and Andries Bekker were doubtful for the game at Malvinas Argentinas Stadium, and coach Meyer’s plans have been thrown into a semblance of disarray.

All of that said, he will know so well that getting the better on the log of the frankly limited Wallabies, and perhaps thus running New Zealand pretty close at the expected top, is going to be seen as a minimum step toward broad approval for his reign, and philosophy.

Australia, with their infinitely smaller rugby union base, have not only had the better of South Africa in Tri-Nations or World Cup tournament progress terms over the past two years, they also sport a 4-0 record from the last quartet of bilateral meetings stretching back to September 4 2010.

The Boks will be strongly tipped to prevail in at least one of the scheduled Perth and Loftus meetings against Australia in the Championship.

But if they were to lose in Mendoza this weekend, some bookies will slightly change their tunes and already favour South Africa to end worst-placed of the SANZAR powers for a humiliating third year on the trot.

It would be a comfort if the Boks got their noses in front pretty quickly against the Pumas again on Saturday, dampening hometown passions, if they want to stave off the possibility of the near-unthinkable ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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