Cape Town – The Springboks, as much as it may hurt many South Africans to hear it, are probably going to be fighting more to be “best of the rest” in the 2016 Castle Rugby Championship than champions.
The four-nation tournament kicks off on Saturday with the Boks at home to Argentina at Nelspruit (17:05) and an earlier dual-Bledisloe Cup cracker between Australia and New Zealand in Sydney (12:05 SA time).
The All Blacks, comfortably No 1-ranked on the planet and World Cup holders since 2011, are inevitably hugely fancied for the title – a situation that will only mushroom if they overcome the Wallaby hurdle away this weekend.
Sadly, there was precious little evidence from the Boks’ stuttering, desperately tight 2-1 June triumph over a seriously diluted Ireland to suggest they are truly feasible challengers for the crown – and they have not ruled this hemisphere’s roost since 2009.
They are in a transitional phase, under a new coach in Allister Coetzee, and no doubt still feeling the aftershocks of surrendering, since RWC 2015 in England, such marathon, steely servants as Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger and others.
It is for that reason that their new tier of most senior personnel, if you like, will have to lead the way by inspiring example if the Boks are to spring a Championship title surprise.
There seems a certain, pronounced collective brittleness about the national side, based on evidence from the June internationals, and that may be in no small measure down to the fact that players in that category were below best levels – or, in the case of Bryan Habana, not actually present -- against the Irish.
If the Boks are to get off to a necessarily rousing start against the Pumas in what is obviously their “easiest” tournament fixture on paper at Mbombela Stadium, and then keep snapping tenaciously at (likely) NZ heels for the overall honours, I believe their stalwarts or at least near-stalwarts will be required to deliver big, impactful performances.
Of the starting XV named by Coetzee on Thursday, which delivered few deviations from media expectations in the lead-up, here are some falling into that category:
Adriaan Strauss (57 caps):
The very fact that Coetzee deliberately spoke up his skipper earlier this week may be interpreted by some – and please include this critic -- as a sure signal that Strauss is not exactly feeling the love from a hard-to-please SA rugby public after the iffy June series.
Coetzee hailed the hooker’s “phenomenal accuracy” at the lineouts then, and it was not without merit, although that salute of one of a hooker’s most basic chores might also be seen as a shrewd cover-up for the fact that the blond No 2 didn’t fully cut the mustard in more fluid play, away from the set-piece.
At his all-round best, Strauss is almost indisputably world-class – like the periods when he kept heavyweight figure Bismarck du Plessis curtailed to the bench, on merit -- but I am also quite adamant in my belief that both for the Bulls in Super Rugby and Boks against the Irish, he has failed to reach more customary levels of excellence in 2016.
Fast-emerging young Lions powerhouse Malcolm Marx hasn’t yet cracked the deputy hooker’s role (Bongi Mbonambi stays the designated substitute on Saturday) but seems primed, in the eyes of many observers, to catapult to the top of the perch if Strauss continues to look only “fair to middling” in the Championship and thus starts to pose both a worry at hooker and in terms of his hold, by extension, on the leadership.
Tendai Mtawarira (78 caps):
“Beast” is a quality Test rugby player … Phil Vickery would no doubt testify ruefully to that, based on one-on-one British and Irish Lions tour events of 2009.
But in recent times the long-time Bok first-choice loosehead prop has too often appeared to go through the motions for South Africa, and there may also be some truth in the theory that he is broadly overplayed in first-class rugby.
Genuinely destructive scrum performances have all but dried up – though that is not to say he takes conspicuous backward steps, either – and even his chant-arousing ball-carries don’t seem to have quite the vim and vigour of old.
There is one forceful reason why Mtawarira needs a return to his vintage best: and it goes by the name of Steven Kitshoff.
Long a favourite of coach Coetzee’s in the Stormers era both contributed fulsomely to, I tipped the flame-haired Kitshoff several months ago to be one of relatively few overseas-based players “Toetie” would deploy this year.
And in the final Test of the Irish series in Port Elizabeth, the 24-year-old finally, gratifyingly earned a maiden Bok cap when he played the last quarter as Mtawarira’s replacement.
He duly “monstered” his unsuspecting Irish opponent in his very first scrum.
Even as he put on his tracksuit, the Beast would probably have noticed that …
Francois Louw (46 caps):
As predicted on Sport24 on Wednesday, Louw has squeezed out Jaco Kriel, who is nevertheless among the subs, in the battle for the open-side flanker role.
Naturally Kriel’s dynamic Super Rugby form automatically means he is pushing Louw hard … and the Bath-based flanker will know it.
But the presence of Oupa Mohoje and Warren Whiteley in the loose trio always made it likely that Louw’s street-wisdom would be required to even things out amongst the grouping.
The incumbent, however, may well have to find an extra 20 percent or so on what he managed against Ireland: it was not, in short, Louw’s finest series as South Africa’s mainline fetcher.
His qualities have been crystal clear ever since that famous occasion at Newlands where he thoroughly outwitted the great Richie McCaw at the breakdown in a 42-14 Stormers victory over the Crusaders.
But that was in 2010 … now 31, “Flo” could do with some similarly thunderous Championship showings to remind of his enduring value.
Bryan Habana (117 caps):
A reluctant inclusion in this exercise by me, to be frank. I simply don’t share the view, but he has copped more dissent among onlookers, especially those active on social media, than I expected for his return to the Bok mix for the Championship … and for that reason might be termed “under pressure” to justify his summons from France.
It seems those detractors have swiftly, oddly forgotten how assured and full of appetite he largely looked during RWC 2015, belying his advanced age (now 33).
Sharing back-three duty on Saturday with two still-callow Test customers in Johan Goosen and Ruan Combrinck, the second most-capped Bok of all time will be an assuring balancer, and calm organiser.
He’s probably a bit more than a whisker’s-length slower than he was in his prime, yes, but Habana remains a canny poacher of note and just as importantly works his socks off in away-from-the-ball situations – as well as in helping to secure brave turnovers.
Class is permanent … but no doubt those questioning his inclusion here will have a field day if he happens to, er, bomb in Mbombela.
Damian de Allende (16 caps):
True, inside centre De Allende is hardly the most qualified of seniors based on modest caps tally … but he is already the second most experienced Bok back-liner running out on Saturday, and is sandwiched between two players – Elton Jantjies at flyhalf and Lionel Mapoe at No 13 – around whom some international doubts still swirl despite their Super Rugby achievements.
That pair will probably look so much more assured themselves against the Pumas if the powerfully-built Stormers man, in a slightly overdue development, takes inspiring control of his key channel both on attack and defence.
De Allende has not yet come close, in either Super Rugby or Tests this season, to matching his sublime strides of 2015, when he combined trickery and subtle touches with his physicality, including off-loading almost as beautifully in contact as Sonny Bill Williams does.
More recently, he has looked strangely sterile, ponderous and sometimes inattentive defensively; an indelicate “basher” giving little scope to those outside of him.
If he can recapture his known, twinkle-toed magic of last year, the entire Bok back division should suddenly have an incisive look to it again.
15 Johan Goosen, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Juan de Jongh, 23, Jesse Kriel
15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Santiago Cordero, 13 Matías Orlando, 12 Juan Martín Hernández, 11 Manuel Montero, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Facundo Isa, 7 Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Matías Alemanno, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy (c), 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro
Substitutes: 16 Julián Montoya, 17 Felipe Arregui, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Guido Petti, 20 Javier Ortega Desio, 21 Tomás Cubelli, 22 Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, 23 Ramiro Moyano
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