Cape Town – Too late for Springbok tickets to Europe? In many cases, yes.
But Saturday’s Currie Cup semi-finals did serve up performances from several players – either “peripheral” Boks already or greenhorns wholly unrecognised for national duty at this stage – to help enhance the belief that the green-and-gold cause is genuinely back on an upward curve.
It was a simultaneous reminder that depth should be a rosy enough hallmark for head coach Rassie Erasmus and his staff as the clocks ticks over in just more than two months’ time to the start of another World Cup year.
There is the growing debate – understandably, considering its constant dilution -- around just how relevant a yardstick the all-domestic competition is these days for Test candidacy.
A lot of the rugby played in the Currie Cup this year, for instance, has been deceptively easy on the eye due, in no small measure, to defence (both in systems and commitment levels) appearing to be “optional” in many try-scoring or at least chance-creating instances.
But you also have to guard against becoming excessively cynical: in the last few weeks, with participants no doubt buoyed by the Boks’ successive stirring showings against world champions New Zealand, the much-maligned tournament has thrown up a raft of young hopefuls for Bok recognition in the not too distant future.
The semis, infused as they were in both Durban and Cape Town by several Springbok “squaddies” who are either the reserve choices in their positions or simply in need of game-time for varying reasons, saw a discernible lifting of standards.
Erasmus must have looked on, over the course of the 180 minutes (don’t forget those extra 20 unusually required at Newlands) with some satisfaction, even if most of his selection ducks are likely to already be in a reasonably smart row for the four-match exercise in the northern hemisphere during November.
Who knows, there may be room yet for a bolter or two in his touring squad, to be revealed after the Currie Cup final on Saturday, although he has also shown greater devotion to continuity in recent weeks and started to see some promising fruit in that.
Still, the semis confirmed that the next generation, if you like, is already taking shape quite positively and if certain players transfer their vibrancy dramatically into Super Rugby 2019, then anything could be possible in terms of dark-horse passages to the World Cup in Japan from late September.
There will be a strong emphasis by Erasmus on experience, you would imagine, for the global jamboree, but remember that injuries are a fact of life in rugby -- with its gruelling, now almost year-round roster – and if certain positions are struck by a jinx, then rookies may suddenly be required with some haste.
An especially pleasing feature of the weekend’s action was the number of early-twentysomethings who came to the fore in a suitably pressured environment.
These included, among others, the assertive Sharks centre pairing of Marius Louw (he turns 23 on Wednesday) and 22-year-old former SA under-20 captain Jeremy Ward, their “supersub” express-merchant utility back Aphelele Fassi (20), the Bulls’ raw second-rower Hendre Stassen (20), fast-developing openside flank Marco van Staden (23) and flyhalf Manie Libbok (21), and Western Province’s 20-year-old flyhalf Damian Willemse – even if not all aspects of his game-management in the key berth worked to a tee on an unexpectedly difficult Saturday for his much-touted side as a whole.
Remember that the Sharks’ robust Du Preez loose forward twins, Jean-Luc and Daniel, although both capped already for the Boks, are still only 23 and quite feasibly with best outputs still ahead in each instance.
The latter had a fine all-round game at eighth-man in the semi-final triumph over the Lions, while Jean-Luc, feeling his way back from injury, brought vital gusto off the bench in the second half.
Both are adding encouraging bits of subtlety to their games now -- including in their varying manners of offload -- to supplement their known grunt and at least one of the twins ought to be on the plane, I think, to heavy-pitch, northern climes.
Then there’s the case of Sergeal Petersen, the terrier-like, hungry and poach-conscious right wing who has been simply buzzing for WP throughout this Currie Cup campaign: he seems to have been around for a long time, bearing in mind that he was a teenager when he first graced Super Rugby for the Southern Kings, but only turned 24 in August so he remains a relative spring chicken.
Petersen is also something of a gritty survivor, really, when you consider the mauling he received from that freak of physical nature Taqele Naiyaravoro, who he had to mark (82kg plays 123kg) when he won a non-Test Bok cap against the Barbarians in 2016.
Subsequently, he has shown ample desire to get his hands dirty, on top of his undoubted attacking prowess, to re-announce himself as a Bok possible among a growing – and youthful – crop of touchline fliers in the country.
Several of the fresh-faced players mentioned have a fair old road to travel yet, make no mistake, before Bok status can be awarded to them.
But the signs are good; the SA developmental pipeline can hardly be said to be dormant …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing