Cape Town - At least Allister Coetzee broke off his relative silence and seemingly low profile of recent times to make a frank confession early this week.
“I can honestly say that there are still a number of positions up for grabs,” the Springbok coach said in the official release accompanying revelation of a latest, 39-strong training group ahead of the June home series against France.
Boy, he is not wrong.
Once again, little can be read into selections given the generous, hedge-your-bets number of attendees to the camp in Johannesburg from Sunday to Tuesday, including known injured customers, plus the exclusion under World Rugby stipulations yet of any overseas-based candidates Coetzee may fancy, and also absence of personnel from the porous Cheetahs (currently touring New Zealand).
Hardly helping is that the collective South African challenge in Super Rugby 2017 flatters to deceive once more, with the Lions lone, suitably consistent winners as was the case last year - when players from that franchise also only complicated matters by generally not replicating in national colours the verve and appetite shown one tier down.
This major head-scratcher lingers for Coetzee: should I put as much - or even more - faith in clearly in-form Lions standouts, all over again? Should I pursue with greater vigour a playing template closer to the style they know and clearly cherish? And could their players adapt acceptably enough to a more conservative, Bok “traditional strengths” pattern, if that’s what I opt for?
So that’s one hot potato ... amidst a greater pile of scalding spuds, if you like, as the time draws ominously close for the national coach to show his 31-strong final squad hand, next Tuesday, for the three Tests against the physical French, third-placed in the 2017 Six Nations.
The Boks reeled during Coetzee’s first season in charge, becoming the first in more commonly proud green-and-gold history to lose eight times in a calendar year.
In that context, have there been any tangible signs of fog clearing in time for the various 2017 challenges?
I would argue, regrettably, that as things stand the pea-souper has only thickened.
In happier and more productive times, after all, one of the first things you might be inclined to do is take a yardstick from your selections, say, for the final game of the previous Test campaign as you weigh up how to assemble your first XV (and almost as importantly these days full match-day 23) of a new season.
Yet the Boks of 2016 really only ended that year as they started it: all at sea tactically and with questions eclipsing answers in so many positions on the park.
Here, as an uncomfortable reminder, was the starting line-up when they put 2016 mercifully to bed, losing by a clear-cut 27-13 to Wales (later to end an innocuous fifth in the Six Nations) at the Millennium Stadium: 15 Johan Goosen, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Adriaan Strauss (capt), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Of those, there are several you can almost certainly rule out from any immediate retention hopes automatically for game one against France at Loftus on June 10.
Utility back Goosen controversially retired aged just 24 at the end of last year, amidst threats of legal action for alleged breach of contract by his French club Racing 92, wing Combrinck has made a much slower-than-expected recovery from shoulder surgery, barrelling inside centre Janse van Rensburg is out for several months with knee ligament problems, scrumhalf De Klerk out of favour and seemingly overseas-bound, whilst captain and seasoned hooker Strauss has retired from the international landscape.
And which of the other, fit members of that run-on side would you say are in vintage Super Rugby form, with renewed Bok honours written all over them?
Midfielder Venter leads a Cheetahs team that plays some effervescent rugby but leaks tries (currently more than five a game) like there is no tomorrow in a just-as-cavalier disregard for defensive principles.
Lanky one-cap wing Ulengo has suffered along with the broader demise of the once-mighty Bulls this season, Jantjies remains a massive enigma - can he play vibrant rugby and look at peace with the world for any team but the Lions? - and Carr simply is no longer an attractive option as a fetcher-type flank (he has been mostly at No 8 with on-and-off success for the Stormers).
The respectable enough blindsider against Wales, Cassiem, is just feeling his way back into Super Rugby - most often as a Cheetahs sub recently - after several weeks out with a knee injury, while that lengthy Bok banker at loosehead, Mtawarira, is also short of best mojo.
He and prop-mate Coenie Oosthuizen (also still part of the extended early SA mix in 2017) were a bit gallingly banished to the Sharks bench shortly after halftime on Saturday as the under-rated Kings eight got some concerted set-piece shoves on, en route to a famous derby win in Port Elizabeth.
Still, one thing almost inadvertently in “Beast’s” favour is that he sports necessary experience and longevity, and that is something that has been far less widespread a phenomenon in Coetzee’s tenure so far than was the case in the prior regimes of Heyneke Meyer and Peter de Villiers, for instance.
Both Meyer and De Villiers did pin fairly consistent faith in various players, who at least created some kind of spine and central “personality” to their teams.
There was so much chopping and changing - not to mention performance under-delivery - last year that it ended with desperately few players looking even remotely like part of the furniture.
A ray of light is that one of few proven world-class men in the present Bok ranks, front lock Eben Etzebeth, is right back in the picture; his end-of-year tour was quickly cut short last November when he was concussed in a collision with England’s own ton-of-bricks forward Billy Vunipola at Twickenham.
It probably amounts to a healthy development, too, that Etzebeth’s second-row partner for both the Stormers and Boks, Pieter-Steph du Toit, is under mounting heat for the Test No 5 shirt from the Lions’ utterly tireless Franco Mostert; both are part of the Jo’burg training exercise.
Coach Coetzee cannot be faulted, either, for drawing closer to his plans players like Lukhanyo Am, Chris Cloete, Thomas du Toit, Ross Cronje, Harold Vorster and Courtnall Skosan, even if his swollen mix at this point also features certain representatives who either look ominously close to dead wood or are in that volatile category of players you might not have dreamed, until pretty recently, might cut it at the very highest level.
Confidently pick a Bok XV right here, right now? Good luck, anyone trying it. I’d rather be blindfolded, spun a dozen times and then pin the tail on the donkey at a kiddie party for a better hope of some accuracy.
But I’ll have a stab on Sport24 shortly, once we know more about overseas players ready and willing for June, and have received certain more up-to-date injury information in some potentially important cases ...
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