Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Hold on a minute ... isn’t this meant to be just the start of the Super Rugby season?
You wouldn’t think so, when perusing the already formidable list of injured players across the three-nation board.
Clean bills of squad health will be few and far between when 2012 hostilities begin next Friday (February 24), as the ever-shrinking “off-season” fails in many instances to fully rehabilitate yet players injured last year, whilst even supposedly limb-loosening pre-season friendlies claim a new toll of their own.
And all this, ominously, just ahead of a campaign where the fixtures concertina will be stretched to its widest point yet, and Super Rugby will be interrupted for three weeks in mid-flight by a trio of Test Saturdays - the Springboks face the presently uninspiring but still physical, uncompromising challenge of visiting England in that period.
Truly, Super Rugby is going to be all about “survival of the fittest” this year, and it is hard to imagine any of the 15 head coaches not wincing if they contemplate right now just how close to - or maybe that should read “far from”? - full strength their line-ups will be by the time the knockout phase starts on July 20.
Perhaps there will be some element of blessing involved in certain key players across the SANZAR landscape not being ready for the start of the competition: it might make them particularly valued, fresh components as they enter the fray more decently rested (albeit involuntarily) than most.
But there must be some alarm bells, all the same, about the fact that many sides will start the taxing season minus several drawcard players, who are obviously important in luring bums to stadium seats or TV-watchers away from their weekend lawnmowers and pool brushes.
Before we examine the local situation, let’s do an impromptu mini-survey of some overseas franchises.
The Crusaders, most successful team in Super Rugby history and strongly tipped for a big title challenge once again, will set off from the blocks without their most iconic forward and backline players respectively, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.
When they play their final warm-up fixture against the Rebels this weekend, the man in the No 10 shirt will be a certain Tyler Bleyendaal, familiar in South Africa only if you followed the fortunes of the “Baby Blacks” religiously in Under-20 combat last year - he is uncapped at Super Rugby level.
Remember that Matt Berquist, who deputised very capably for the great Carter at times in 2011, has since sought new pastures with Leinster.
The Highlanders already have a front row crisis, to such an extent that forwards coach Kees Meeuws, now 37 and whose All Blacks scrumming heyday was some 10 years ago, has been summoned out of retirement to the bench for the last pre-season game against the Blues.
Meanwhile in Australia the Waratahs have been rocked this week by the news that seasoned lock Dan Vickerman has been ruled out for the season and possibly even into retirement himself: he has wrestled both shoulder-injury and leg stress fracture woes.
Back home, a strong possibility exists that the Sharks - as usual, many experts’ picks for conference supremacy - will get their season off on the back foot.
That is because, when they face up to the demanding task of taking on the Bulls at Loftus next Friday night, they will be sans no fewer than three of their very best ball-carriers and maulers - Beast Mtawarira, Jean Deysel and Willem Alberts - against opponents who eternally relish physicality.
Some comfort is that all three will gradually “filter back” after the first few weeks, but John Plumtree’s charges are perhaps a little more vulnerable to defeat now by certain decent-calibre opponents in the interim, which could have consequences for their overall crack at maiden Super Rugby title glory.
In the home-team camp, recovering vice-captain and experienced inside centre Wynand Olivier is considered touch-and-go for the Sharks date.
Just a couple of weeks ago, last season’s strongest-faring South African side, the Stormers, looked pretty shipshape for the new campaign.
But then they went to the Eastern Cape to play the Kings last weekend and returned with some sudden new casualties: promising lock Rynhardt Elstadt, gradually building up on game-time after a long-term different ailment, suffered an ankle ligament tear, whilst Deon Fourie, one of their top two hookers, broke a bone in a hand.
Certainly in Fourie’s case, his setback highlights how crucial it has become for Super Rugby teams to have not two but at least three credible candidates for particular, specialist positions.
Should first-choice hooker Tiaan Liebenberg, for instance, get crocked over the next few weeks now, the Stormers will be left just with Siyabonga Ntubeni, who only turns 21 on Saturday.
Ntubeni has big potential (based on evidence from fleeting appearances off the bench last season) as a dynamic run-around, hard-working factor, but he is notably diminutive and lacking in the “kilos” department ... and this in a franchise not exactly bursting with genuinely powerful, destructive props, so some real pain at scrum time might well follow if he is fast-tracked to a starting role.
Ironically the Cheetahs and Lions, the two South African teams whose survival in Super Rugby seems most endangered by the forced presence of the Southern Kings from next season, seem less affected than the bigger unions by debilitating injuries at this stage, with the former banking on blue-chip forwards Coenie Oosthuizen and Juan Smith returning to their midst well before the halfway mark.
Still, our conference seems the one conspicuously most likely to be affected by in-season injuries, given the traditionally bone-crunching, unsubtle nature of local derbies and now the significantly raised stakes over the Kings matter.
With the “crocks” toll this hefty already, it is likely to only swell further, to the detriment of South Africa’s Super Rugby challenge and, even more importantly, Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing