Cape Town - It’s a record early start for serious rugby in the southern hemisphere in 2020 ... will South Africa, home of the World Cup 2019-winning Springboks, hit the ground running at all levels?
That is perhaps easier said than done, but here is my main SA wish list for the calendar year, which might go a long way to ensuring smiles, success and a lack of controversy ...
1. Duane Vermeulen sticks around for the Boks
I have watched the full, stirring 32-12 World Cup final triumph over England a total of three times now … and every time Vermeulen only looks more and more immense as a trophy-clinching factor.
The big, utterly uncompromising No 8 earning the player-of-the-match laurel might have been overlooked to a good degree by many already delirious Bok supporters right at the back end of the contest.
As has become quite customary, he pretty much “owned” England’s own intended eighth-man wrecking ball Billy Vunipola and was a massive source of both go-forward and defensive security (including in high-ball management) for the Boks.
Still so obviously a man of steel - arguably the Boks’ main enforcer in many respects - at age 33, Vermeulen richly deserved a World Cup winner’s medal after a Bok career that began unreasonably late for him.
Now Japan-based, where the first-class pressures are a little easier, he has it in him (if he wants it, or can be coaxed) to remain a vital factor for the Springboks in the prestigious 2021 series against the British and Irish Lions.
Even if he seeks certain liberties (like selective choice of certain Bok fixtures?) in the meantime, everything possible should be done to convince Vermeulen to stay a part of furniture to the Lions tour.
Lose him, and South Africa instantly sacrifice more grunt and wisdom in a spinal spot than they possibly even realise.
2. The Springboks win the (proper) Rugby Championship this year
Yes, South Africa are title-holders anyway.
But everyone knows that the real barometer of annual southern hemisphere mastery is to win the title after the full, double round of fixtures rather than in an abbreviated World Cup year where teams tend to use it for experimental purposes, and toward a greater goal.
If the Boks are to hold onto -- for the meaningful period I’m sure they must envisage -- their status as top-ranked power on the World Rugby ladder, retaining the Championship silverware after a 2020 “Full Monty” will be a major driver of that quest.
The last Bok title in a real-deal Championship (then Tri-Nations) came more than a decade ago now, when they beat arch-rivals the All Blacks three times (twice at home and once away, the clincher in Hamilton) en route to the spoils.
They will only have to play the presumably earnestly regrouping New Zealanders twice in 2020; pipping them both home and away - while not forgetting the aspirations of Australia and Argentina - over the course of the two clashes this year would be a major step toward being crowned again.
3. Solid transformation progress is retained
One player of colour on the wing (the late Chester Williams) in the 1995 RWC triumph; two in those berths (Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen) in the 2007 version ... and in each case, no additional ones in the more extended match-day squads either.
That is why the 2019 victory under the extraordinarily astute tactical guidance of Rassie Erasmus was so especially satisfying: South Africa did it with an entirely more representative team and squad.
Apart from the dazzling brace of winning tries (SA’s first ever in a World Cup final, too) both being recorded by players of colour - Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe - there were five others in the starting XV, including the captain, and another on the bench in diminutive young scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies.
While the national cricket team wrestles with new sensitivities around transformation during the home Test series against England, with black representation currently down to four in the XI and falling short of CSA’s stated targets, the Boks started heading into altogether more agreeable terrain on that front last year.
SA Rugby will undoubtedly wish for that trend to continue in 2020 ... including at essential “feeder” Super Rugby and Currie Cup level.
4. A South African winner of the SA conference in Super Rugby
It was just a little humiliating last year that the conference was won by the lone non-South African side in it, the Jaguares.
The Argentineans commendably went onward to the final ... and were full value for their group supremacy, too, as they had ended a full 10 points clear of the second-placed best South African outfit, the Bulls.
While there are no guarantees, considering that the clear nucleus of pedigreed Springboks now ply their trade in foreign climes, this country hardly lacks both emerging and present talent and the collective message to the quartet of local sides really should be: “Must do better”.
Perhaps it is asking a bit much this year for a first SA winner of the tournament since the Bulls last did it in distant 2010, but a conference win, ensuring a stronger finals series seeding, would be a step back in a healthier direction.
5. Siya Kolisi is carefully, patiently managed
Kolisi is a new national treasure ... and for reasons going well beyond, of course, the fact that he has joined Francois Pienaar and John Smit as skipper of a Webb Ellis Cup-winning national cause.
As first black captain of a world-conquering Bok team, he has a responsibility, importance and poignancy that eclipses both predecessors.
He is SA Rugby’s No 1 poster figure from a marketing point of view, and it goes beyond merely in a rugby context: the 28-year-old flanker from humble roots in Zwide is also a crucial unifier in a fractious society riddled with burdensome challenges.
Against that backdrop, it is understandable that so many people, from all walks of life, want their piece of him: I wonder just how many handshakes, selfies, impromptu speeches and soundbites Kolisi has had to give – almost always willingly and sincerely, too - since the Boks’ triumph in Japan.
For him, the latest off-season has been unusually fatiguing, diplomacy-laden one in many senses, rather than as restful as it should be to any player.
It is vital that new Stormers head coach John Dobson - by reputation a deft man-manager and all-round good “human” - make due allowance for the rare pressures Kolisi, one of his prize assets in Super Rugby 2020, has faced of late.
There must be some leeway for the loose forward and leader to grow gradually into the season, and it may need to involve particularly smart management of his game-time and preservation of mental freshness.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing