Cape Town – Anyone think the current Springbok squad is strong enough to mount a serious assault on the 2016 Castle Rugby Championship?
Not normally the pessimistic type, my view is: if you think so, dream on.
There is a certain spin from the Bok camp suggesting we should rejoice – and yes, there was a good dollop of “character” - in the very narrowly-secured home series victory over Ireland, not in the top six-ranked powers in the world and quite significantly under-strength from the outset of the safari.
Is that how deep we have sunk to?
I find it impossible not to suspect, once you cut through the misleading euphoria, that Bok rugby slipped ever so slightly backwards over the last few weeks rather than anything else, even if there should be acceptance that a new regime (both coaching and captaincy) requires some time and patience.
We saw tangible progress from certain players, it is true, with scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, right wing Ruan Combrinck, lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, No 8 Warren Whiteley and at times flyhalf Elton Jantjies (perhaps saved by occasional sublime touches on attack) to the fore.
Brief cameos as substitutes suggesting future prosperity came, too, from Steven Kitshoff, Julian Redelinghuys and Franco Mostert.
But that was counter-balanced by the under-delivery on known potential, when taken in the context of the entire series, from the likes of Willie le Roux, Lwazi Mvovo, Lionel Mapoe, Damian de Allende, Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw, Siya Kolisi, Adriaan Strauss and Frans Malherbe.
Some of them will – and even did toward the business end against the Irish – get better, and in certain cases probably be fitter and fresher for the Championship.
There are also some players from within Allister Coetzee’s more extended squad who either couldn’t start the series at all or received injuries during it, and should be back challenging incumbents in various positions for the southern hemisphere’s annual showpiece tournament from mid-August.
Into that category fall Pat Lambie and Vermeulen, for example.
But there’s no doubt in my own mind that the Boks need to strongly consider fortifying the current, rather callow-looking crew with a few seasoned individuals who could go a long way to ensuring the country doesn’t suffer too many deflating losses in the Championship.
I have never believed the cop-out bunkum, so soon after one World Cup, that you immediately start obsessing overwhelmingly with the next. Shorter-term, more realistic goals need to be set, like simply edging back closer toward “next best” to New Zealand and then gradually setting loftier intentions from there.
South Africa operates its rugby in a volatile, vulnerable climate in which long-term planning is a relatively futile exercise anyway.
If the Boks want to be acceptably competitive in the Championship, and not run the risk of demoralisation or dented confidence for some of their newer elements, certain healthy injections ought to be to the broader camp, even if they don’t necessarily have to be treated as starters.
Debatably, considering very mixed evidence from the Irish series, Coetzee has indicated he is sticking to Strauss as captain for the rest of the year. That is despite his strictly moderate personal form during the June activity.
For Championship purposes, I firmly believe the Boks should fire up the engine of the “Battleship” Bismarck du Plessis, if only to have his known, no-nonsense and world-class credentials keeping the skipper hugely on his toes.
With Le Roux notably struggling in the last line of defence, I quite like the possibility of skilful, committed Combrinck getting a crack at fullback, where his authoritative boot could come in especially handy.
That would facilitate a return to the proven old firm at wing of JP Pietersen ... and Bryan Habana.
Forget his age, the decorated Toulon man was still a bundle of energy, wisdom and awareness at RWC 2015. You can’t cavalierly say he’s “past it” - not yet, anyway.
Apart from an array of other assets, he competes pluckily at the breakdown and senses when trouble is looming, and those are areas the rebuilding Boks are coming up a little short in.
While content for the Jantjies/Lambie duo to be considered best options for the all-important flyhalf spot under present circumstances, neither is a big unit physically and you got the sense that the Irish particularly targeted that channel with ball in hand: why wouldn’t even better and more robust sides attempt the same?
Jantjies seems more fallible than Lambie defensively, it must be said.
It might not be a bad idea for the Boks to have lurking nearby someone like the 1.86m, almost 90kg Johan Goosen – just off French title success with Racing Metro - especially for the booming boot he offers, both out of hand and off the tee.
As with Habana, I think it would be foolhardy to suggest Schalk Burger be put out to pasture. Put that green and gold jersey over the head of the 86-capper and you still get that instinctive, warrior-like spirit.
The Boks were sometimes out-thought and even out-muscled - ouch! - in the loosie stakes against the Irish. It suggests the danger of further angst against tougher foes in the Championship.
Burger, with his versatile qualities and ever-zealous work ethic, is just the type to stop just “nonsense” -- even if his prime is inescapably a bit behind him. A forceful few weeks at the tail end of Super Rugby would help his cause.
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