Cape Town – Many of them are staple presences in Springbok sides picked by coach Heyneke Meyer, but the significant Sharks contingent in his plans are also showing increasingly glaring signs of mental and physical fatigue.
Disturbingly, that is with the Test portion of the 2014 season only about to begin, against Wales in the first of two clashes at Kings Park on Saturday.
A common denominator in Saturday’s non-Test, 47-13 victory over the so-called and frankly overly-hyped World XV at Newlands was the fact that the six players in Meyer’s starting line-up from the Super Rugby log-leading Sharks generally struggled to do full justice to their known, indisputable reputations.
It is not a criticism ... it is simply the sobering reality of the majority of them having played more or less non-stop for nine weekends, including a four-week Australasian tour with their franchise.
The pressures have been greater than for any other compatriot outfit, because when you are riding high and pushing desperately hard for rights to that important, possible home final, there is just no room for stepping off the pedal.
As a result, Sharks coach Jake White has demanded routine duty from his hard-core Boks, and his talk before the overseas leg of rotating certain hard-pressed troops largely amounted to nothing.
The Durban-based franchise had little reason to beef about their itinerary this year, given its massively heavy emphasis on home matches in the first half of ordinary season which allowed them to become pace-setters pretty swiftly and stay there -- even if the rest of the playoffs-chasing pack has closed in threateningly of late.
But one drawback was a tougher second half of fixtures, plus the Sharks’ two byes coming a bit too early to allow them a decent breather near the business end: the last of their two sit-out weekends was as far back as April 4/5.
Inevitably, various Boks from the Durban-based team have begun to shed some sharpness, even as their professional pride keeps them ticking as best as possible.
That probably applies especially to the forwards, who take the greater bodily pounding: little wonder, then, that the normally trusty front row of Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis (vastly improved in the second half at Newlands, mind you) and Jannie du Plessis were way down on scrummaging effectiveness against the cobbled-together “global” crew.
Blindside flank Willem Alberts -- custodian of another notoriously taxing position physically – also struggled to consistently impose himself on the day, even as he did some chores well.
In truth, both teams had farcically little prep time for the game, and it may have been one reason why a good many discerning rugby followers opted to give the contest a wide berth in terms of attendance; there were all-too-noticeable swathes of empty seats at the venue on a blustery but rainless Cape winter’s evening.
It is entirely possible that, subconsciously, a few Bok players knew they had to somehow leave enough gas in the tank for the three Tests to follow the useful enough friendly, and Meyer was probably quite justified afterwards in suggesting that his side’s scrum angst (the most notably shortcoming even as several other boxes were comfortably ticked) isn’t going to give him nightmares for the next few days.
At least the shortcoming came into the open in a non-Test environment, with improvement next Saturday now quite likely as a result, and he also made the point that South Africa were sturdy scrummagers with similar personnel at their disposal last year.
Even so, Wales will offer a stern challenge on that front, with such gnarly front-row veterans as Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins on this safari, and the tourists will be well aware that such players as Mtawarira and the older Du Plessis brother have been over-employed in recent weeks and possibly vulnerable as a consequence.
A problem for the Bok brains trust is that decent alternatives - if they feel that is a consideration - hardly fall off the trees in the orchard.
Neither of substitute props Gurthro Steenkamp or Coenie Oosthuizen (the latter still swimming rather against the tide to adapt to tighthead?) set the turf alight when introduced on Saturday, whilst remember that last year’s youthful option at No 3 for Meyer, Frans Malherbe, has sat out several weeks in the wake of a clearly nasty concussion.
How is Meyer to handle the “Sharks fatigue” situation?
It is delicate, because he needs to win Test matches and justifiably his instincts are to engage his most desired names on paper; stability is a key hallmark of his coaching ideology and he hates handing out caps willy-nilly.
But maybe he is simply going to be forced – whether this weekend or thereafter – to indulge in the sort of rotation practice that, in a country like New Zealand with its more central contracting and priority for the national side, should really have occurred in Super Rugby, preceding the June Bok agenda.
For instance, is versatile back Frans Steyn, with his confessed chronic knee condition, really going to get through further rugby every week for the next three unscathed?
Broadly speaking, the Bok coach probably wishes to build on the many promising signs displayed against the World XV, and thus not tinker too extensively with his side for the first Wales Test.
But he also knows deep down that some players are close to running on empty ... perhaps with grave longer-term effects.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing