Cape Town - The Springbok developmental curve is inching upward again.
We can say that with reasonable safety and assuredness after witnessing just how very close they ran the still trend-setting All Blacks in a high-calibre Castle Rugby Championship match at Newlands on Saturday.
I believe also we can cast aside the theory that this was a meaningless game considering that the New Zealanders entered it already confirmed as tournament champions afresh: it was passionate and full-blooded enough from everyone on the park to only suggest it was spirited resumption of the fierce SA-NZ tradition.
The utterly tenacious Boks, in a heartening development, all but wiped the bilateral slate clean from that awful 0-57 result some three weeks ago, restoring dignity to the green and gold jersey if not quite a winning way again as they succumbed 25-24 in the near-classic.
Kieran Read’s charges weren’t quite at full strength, but then neither were the hosts, still missing all of the likes of regular captain Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Coenie Oosthuizen and others who had shown promise earlier this year.
Whiteley, after several months on the sidelines, is expected back at his No 8 and leadership post for the traditional end-of-year tour, and if so will restore a vital sense of specialist quality at eighth-man and balance to the loose trio generally, for the undertaking that includes fixtures against Ireland (the opener on November 11) and then France, Italy and Wales.
The tearaway flanker Kriel certainly won’t make the tour, but hefty, emerging tighthead Oosthuizen should stiffen an already competitive pack in conditions likely to favour pivotal slug-outs in that area of play.
At least for the time being, sometimes embattled coach Allister Coetzee and his lieutenants warrant a bit of breathing space from pundits.
Not everyone will be so charitable, you can be sure, but there is a good enough case for saying the Albany rout can now be considered an aberration in what has otherwise been a significantly better 2017 for the national side than doggedly grim 2016 was.
Unfortunately it will not be reflected in the Championship itself, where the Boks have a little irksomely been bumped down to a third-place finish again behind so-so Australia, considering the Wallaby victory over sorry wooden-spoonists Argentina in the tourney-closer.
That is why the European trek - some of the more overworked Boks get a well-merited five-week break from competitive rugby in the interim, with conditioning no doubt a key focus - automatically becomes the definitive undertaking of the team’s agenda this year.
I suspect I will not be alone in venturing that Coetzee could really do with a minimum tour record of three victories from four (of course 100 percent would be particularly pleasing) if he wants to bank suitable public affection on a venture that skirts Eddie Jones’s world second-ranked England.
Ireland first up shapes as the toughest undertaking, so hitting the ground running will be very important, but if that game is surrendered then it will be pretty crucial in supporters’ eyes that the Boks bounce straight back to dispose of all of the more moderate other trio.
The Boks should tour with the key, gladdening foundation of a strong forward arsenal - including necessary depth - in most of jerseys one to eight, when you think about it.
Quality, necessarily muscular back-up to the magnificent young prospect Malcolm Marx (game of his Test life at Newlands on Saturday) at hooker would be a concern if he got injured and there is no thought by Coetzee - there should? - to a recall for Montpellier’s rugged, massively proven 33-year-old Bismarck du Plessis.
On the subject of overseas-based players, it will be interested to see whether the Bok brains trust cast the net wider for this tour in terms of picking players who conveniently ply their club trade in the northern hemisphere at present and will be well-versed in conditions there.
It is always a tricky, delicate business for them in establishing which ones have the necessary desire, fitness and match-sharpness levels to slot swiftly into Springbok Test plans.
Almost undoubtedly, it is in several positions behind the scrum where the Boks still have the most angst; in short, the backline as a whole this year continues to look well short of the sort of punch you expect of a South African unit even if the “gees” is decent enough.
At least Handre Pollard’s short-lived, overdue vibrant cameo against the All Blacks off the bench was a really encouraging one; Elton Jantjies will doubtless stay part of the extended mix, but the former also offers the kind of direct, more physical package that can be precious in the right circumstances.
Hopefully domestic high-performers like Curwin Bosch, Warrick Gelant, S’bu Nkosi, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Harold Vorster and several others will enter the radar quite forcefully for possible tour selection.
Psst, even a Damian Willemse little curveball, as the Boks try to unearth a necessary new, rookie bamboozler on the offensive?
The closing rounds of the Currie Cup, despite its modern limitations, should serve up a useful late yardstick or two to Coetzee ...
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