Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The exit at the first knockout hurdle of two of the three South African teams involved in the Super Rugby finals series will have obvious benefits to the Springbok cause for the Castle Rugby Championship.
With the quarter-final elimination of traditionally big local franchises the Stormers and Sharks on Saturday, a significant majority (roughly two-thirds) of the most recent, extended Bok squad are now on a four-week break -- at least in match-play terms -- until the Championship opener against Argentina at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on August 19.
A smaller Bok group, of course, had already ended their Super Rugby 2017 participation a little earlier, as Cheetahs, Bulls and Kings customers played no part in the KO phase.
But the two traditional heavyweight coastal sides bowing out together at the weekend meant that a healthy chunk of the Bok incumbents will be able to spend the next few weeks with a handy, heavy emphasis on mid-season conditioning rather than the often costly physical battery associated with competitive action.
Into such a category fall players like the following Stormers representatives: Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Steven Kitshoff (though he was ineligible for the finals series anyway), Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Damian de Allende and Dillyn Leyds.
Meanwhile Sharks staffers now presumably cocooned for a while will be Tendai Mtawarira, Coenie Oosthuizen, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Lukhanyo Am.
All of these men were part of coach Allister Coetzee’s initial, 31-strong squad revealed at the start of the clean-swept series against France in June.
There may be some alterations for the Championship, not least because of injury-related matters – just for example, captain Warren Whiteley is touch-and-go for the outset of the Championship – and the fact that some personnel unavailable for the French series may be off the crocked list for the annual four-nation competition.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard, who has had an interrupted year thus far but remains potentially a key player for the Boks – he has a knack of being influential against NZ -- is being “medically assessed” at a Stellenbosch camp this week involving players who did not see Super Rugby knockout action, and also excluding overseas-based ones.
The fuller Bok group reassembles in Port Elizabeth on August 8 to prepare for the Championship opener, and its composition is expected to be known – at latest -- by soon after the finish of the Super Rugby final on August 5, assuming that the Lions have gone all the way to the showpiece.
That, in some senses, is a potential down side for the Bok cause, given the intense extra burden over the next fortnight for the Lions representatives if they do keep their mojo going.
The likes of Ruan Dreyer, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert, Andries Coetzee, Ross Cronje, Elton Jantjies, Courtnall Skosan and Malcolm Marx would then enter the Bok camp reasonably mentally and bodily weary.
Not that there could be any complaints at all from a Bok point of view, bearing in mind that as many as three NZ outfits are still alive and kicking in Super Rugby.
For that reason as well, South Africa may well take a core group of fresher players into the Championship than the title-holders and hot favourites do; we already know that the Lions have no further long-haul travel to negotiate.
Keep in mind also that the All Blacks have just come off their most demanding pre-Championship series in some time … the shared, enthralling three-Test one with the British and Irish Lions.
Consider the position of someone like Brodie Retallick, their blue-chip tight forward who always has a fierce battle – whether Super Rugby or Test -- with the Boks’ own classy second-rower Etzebeth.
Not only did the tall Chiefs enforcer play every single minute of the Lions series for his country, but his Super Rugby team – albeit maybe an outside chance at this juncture – run the risk of having to visit our shores for a murderous second time in little over a week if they upset hosts the Crusaders in the all-New Zealand semi-final this Saturday and the Lions shift onward at the expense of the visiting Hurricanes.
It won’t be enough to make them favourites, not by a long shot, but the planets are at least aligning fairly smartly for the Springboks to be sharper at the outset of the Championship than their great traditional rivals are …
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