Rudy Paige (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – You just sense on street corners that the broad national psyche, for a variety of reasons, isn’t the greatest right now.
Subconsciously, perhaps it has played its part in an unusually modest level of public confidence (and some outright scorn) in the Springboks – still the team with the best strike rate for winning it – going all the way to World Cup glory this year.
On a purely form-related basis, it is understandable that sentiment leans toward the cautious: the Boks have chosen this inconvenient year to have one of their least productive Test campaigns on paper in the lead-up, with just one victory from four matches.
That is an uncharacteristically lean return for them.
But a good part of me nevertheless wonders whether Heyneke Meyer’s charges aren’t being judged too severely on one genuine horror show, that first-time (37-25) loss to Argentina in Durban which many considered the on-switch for some kind of Bok Armageddon.
It was, indeed, a terrible display: South Africa simply didn’t pitch up mentally, physically or in terms of intended structural and tactical templates. Their defence was arguably more lackadaisical than in any prior Test match of Meyer’s almost four-year tenure.
Subsequently, smoke signals have emerged – former coach Nick Mallett has been among those punting them -- suggesting that the lethargy and all-round shambles on that occasion was at least partly attributable to an ill-advised move on the part of the Bok coaching staff in putting them through some particularly murderous conditioning in the lead-up.
Of course some element of that fitness drive, if true, seemed justifiable, given that the Boks had appeared to fatally fade as the sands trickled out in the successive earlier losses to Australia and New Zealand.
Yet the fact still remains that for the lion’s share of both those matches, the Springboks had either dominated (Australia) or at very least gone toe to toe (New Zealand) for the biggest portions of the 80 minutes each time.
Botching those games against such traditional southern foes on the scoreboard was galling and frustrating; I’m not denying that. A killer instinct, particularly against the Wallabies, was absent.
But I’m also very much with those among the rugby intelligentsia in this country who saw enough in both Brisbane and Johannesburg to suggest the Boks stay closer than others will credit to the top of the global pile in sheer ability terms.
It is also possible that some South Africans have read too much into the country’s unfamiliar regression to fourth on the world rankings, from an almost permanent berth somewhere amidst the top three.
Personally, I often find national rankings odious and largely irrelevant – not just in rugby – with dubious mathematics and logic applied and populism as the primary aim. The World Cup may well establish a more fitting order, in several instances.
The hullabaloo over selection for the 31-strong party (though when since the Pienaar-Strauss conundrum ahead of our 1995 RWC debut hasn’t there been widespread dissent?) has also done little to crank up widespread, positive public expectation.
Once again, though, so much of this – especially in the age of rampant, reflex and stabbing social media – probably gets more attention than it really deserves.
Like it or not, 31 men are now earnestly preparing for a World Cup, and sideshows mercifully be damned.
Prejudice and raw hatred abounds from all angles, though I have been particularly irked by the way someone like unexpected pick Rudy Paige has been demonised, whether intentionally or not.
Only in South Africa could the (likely) third option at scrumhalf earn such an outbreak of hysteria on front pages of newspapers and elsewhere.
Yes, he is uncapped and that is less than ideal, but it is also ridiculous and insulting to suggest he is “only” there because of the requirements of transformation; people have dreadfully short memories.
He has previously brought necessary stability to the No 9 berth at Super Rugby level to the Bulls, during periods when the talented Francois Hougaard has occasionally drifted into a bit of a “headless chicken” mode tactically.
The man many thought would be the additional Bok scrumhalf on the plane, Cobus Reinach, also falls more into the mercurial, unpredictable category of halfback ... I have never felt with huge conviction, over the course of his 10 Bok caps (just three starts), that he absolutely “belongs” yet in green and gold.
At 25, Reinach is well young enough to challenge for another RWC in 2019, especially if he can add to his gifts in athleticism and elusiveness more of a game-managing nous.
He is a bit unlucky, that’s all. That is a time-honoured hallmark of team sport.
Here’s another thing: go through the names of players who have been part of prior Bok World Cup squads – especially the problematic 2003, SA’s worst by a distance – and you will find scores of representatives (the majority of whom happen not to be players of colour) who were very questionably worth their spots then and quickly retreated to international anonymity after the tournament.
The spine of the 2015 Bok team still looks a stiff one, particularly given the positive medical reports earlier this week – though seeing is believing! -- suggesting they will finally have the luxury of a full house of squad members available for selection from the outset.
This is by no means intended as a lopsided rah-rah in Bok favour for the looming event.
My solid favourites for the Webb Ellis Cup -- surprise, surprise – remain a certain black-jerseyed crew.
But I reckon the Boks are worth a cheeky little flutter. Warts and all, they’re potentially still right up there with the best of the rest for RWC 2015.
Just a little luck and dogged unity may propel them a long, long way.
Snap up a few of these shares, while they’re down.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing