Cape Town - At a time when plans ought to be coming together at a fair rate of knots, the Springboks’ World Cup preparations only appear to be amassing elements of scary uncertainty.
In a nutshell, coach Heyneke Meyer is probably sweating a great deal over the well-being for the tournament next month of a formidable tally of stalwarts he has earmarked for ages as key components of his arsenal.
This waiting game, with the sands running out, is less than ideal and may well be one of the reasons for the present fragility in the Bok camp, which has seen them surrender three Tests on the trot this season alone and on a losing streak of four in total since the end of last year.
There will be some members of the immediately active squad unsure whether they will see frontline service at the World Cup or, in some cases, even make the 31-strong cut for the long-haul flight to the UK at all, as so much depends on the health or otherwise of others.
The closer we get to the tournament - South Africa open their pool-stage account against Japan at Brighton on September 19, now just over five weeks away - the more it becomes a lottery to predict whether core personalities like captain Jean de Villiers, Fourie du Preez and Duane Vermeulen, in particular, will be properly fit and sharp for a fulsome role at RWC.
Current, supposedly less worrisome injuries to Francois Louw, Lood de Jager, Willie le Roux, Jannie du Plessis, JP Pietersen and others, plus the uncertainty over Frans Steyn’s absence from the camp due to a family bereavement, hardly help Meyer’s quest to be comfortable about the “A-team” he will wish to field by the time the critical knockout phase comes along, at the very latest.
It will not be making Bok enthusiasts feel any better about the state of things right now that perhaps as few as four of the starting line-up the coach has chosen for Saturday’s return meeting with Argentina in Buenos Aires (21:40) are strongly envisaged at this point as Bok first-choicers for bigger World Cup clashes.
I would suggest that quartet are Bryan Habana, Damian de Allende, Schalk Burger and Eben Etzebeth, with the likeliest possible additions, among the current XV, being Victor Matfield, Willem Alberts and Jesse Kriel (possibly also Pat Lambie if he gets his flyhalf nose suitably in front of Handre Pollard through a slick effort this weekend).
A shaft of light at the end of the long tunnel of doubt, maybe, is the availability in the XV this week of Matfield and Alberts, who in their different ways could yet be key figures at the World Cup.
Both have been favourites of Meyer’s for some time, even if they are not necessarily guaranteed starts in his ideal XV for red-letter fixtures - lineout legend Matfield for the obvious fact that he is 38 and under heightened threat from the impressive De Jager for the No 5 jersey, and Alberts because he may well be a horses-for-courses kind of pick in the unpredictable English autumn.
It is possible the weather will be mild and relatively dry in September and October there, as opposed to the gloomy norm when the Boks traditionally play end-of-season fixtures in Europe in November.
The “Bone Collector” will obviously come strongly into his own in slow, heavy conditions when yards are made the hard, grinding way, but he is not everyone’s cup of tea when pitches are faster and firmer - and remember that the Boks play most of their group matches on football pitches with short grass.
Mobility, or lack thereof, can be an issue for the 120kg behemoth when matches are fluid and his rate of industry invariably drops off; he is never helped by having such a stop-start presence on the field due to a catalogue of injuries that continually stalk him.
So Saturday in Buenos Aires - where he will be expected to make a swift, pronounced physical statement in the 40-odd minutes he is tipped to get - is a vital opportunity for him to remind of his value.
It was interesting reading the thoughts recently of Juan Smith, RWC-winning Bok flanker of 2007, who suggested the best-balanced Bok loose trio at this year’s event is Marcell Coetzee (another whose involvement regrettably hangs by an injury-related thread), Burger and Vermeulen. In other words, no automatic room for Alberts.
Yet Iin a reflection of the broader fitness quandary the Boks have as the RWC kick-off looms, both Coetzee and Vermeulen, of the trio advocated by Smith, remain some way off readiness to rumble.
Vermeulen, widely branded among the top two No 8s on the planet with Kieran Read, is considered absolutely pivotal to Bok wishes for go-forward bragging rights, but neck surgery can be a complex, precarious business; hopefully it is true that his progress is considered sound.
So the biggest vagaries, arguably, surround skipper De Villiers, considering the cruel complication of his jaw fracture to add to his gradual knee-related “rehab”, and lengthy rugby absentee Du Preez at scrumhalf.
It was disconcerting reading reports on Wednesday suggesting that even Meyer is a little downbeat now about De Villiers’s extremely gutsy quest to make the cut, while the longer Du Preez fails to feels comfortable enough to get on the park for the Boks, the more his own RWC participation is going to become shrouded in doubt.
The 33-year-old known maestro of his trade has not played for South Africa since June 28 last year, nor any level of competitive rugby for many months: just how quickly can he now regain necessary levels of appetite, sparkle and conditioning for the most taxing stage of all?
Some tough, decisive and possibly unpalatable decisions may have be made very soon by the Bok hierarchy...
Argentina:15-Joaquin Tuculet, 14-Santiago Cordero, 13-Matias Moroni, 12-Juan Martin Hernandez, 11-Juan Imhoff, 10-Nicolas Sanchez, 9-Martin Landajo; 8-Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 7-Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 6-Tomas Lezana, 5-Tomas Lavanini, 4-Benjamin Macome, 3-Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 2-Agustin Creevy (captain), 1-Marcos Ayerza
Substitutes: 16-Julian Montoya, 17-Lucas Noguera, 18-Juan Pablo Orlandi, 19-Matias Alemanno, 20-Pablo Matera, 21-Tomas Cubelli, 22-Juan Pablo Socino, 23-Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino
15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Lwazi Mvovo, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Heinrich Brussow, 5Victor Matfield (captain), 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor Nyakane
Substitutes: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20, Pieter-Steph du Toit, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Handre Pollard, 23 Jan Serfontein
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