Durban - Earlier this week Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer reiterated that his team’s focus was only on this evening’s Test against Wales at Kings Park, but in the back of his mind there will also be an acute awareness that the World Cup is just over a year away.
Although one may look at the Boks’ international schedule this year and think that 13 Tests will provide plenty of time to begin certain preparations, that would be rather short-sighted.
As we’ve already seen during a disruptive build-up to the opening Test of the year, injury, illness, suspension and a shock withdrawal have left Meyer with a notably depleted squad, as well as a few unanswered questions.
At the end of last year, the Boks had made significant progress in a number of key areas, adding an attacking edge to their defensive solidity, and their breakdown efficiency, set-phase play and kicking game looked on the right track for England next year.
For the most part, the first-choice combinations seemed to be settled, with Willie le Roux emerging as an exciting option in the previously problematic position of fullback, and the only real areas of positional concern being at No 5 lock and, perhaps, outside centre.
Unfortunately, long-term injuries to Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jaque Fourie have left Meyer without two front-line candidates for those positions already this year, which only supports the point that adjustments have to be constantly made.
With the injury to Eben Etzebeth, as well as a host of unavailable centres, one only has to look at the second-row and midfield combinations this evening to get a further sense of just how quickly a rosy pre-season build-up can turn black.
The silver lining is that Meyer will have the opportunity to test some new combinations and players.
The Bok coach has also quite rightly acknowledged that he is now well versed in dealing with disruptions that might have thrown him during his first year in charge.
Jan Serfontein is undoubtedly a star in the making at inside centre, and JP Pietersen’s continued evolution at No 13 will add valuable versatility to his game a year away from the World Cup.
Pietersen’s shift to the midfield has also afforded the exciting Cornal Hendricks an opportunity to stake his claim on the wing, and Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha reunite in a second-row pairing that, a year ago, seemed gone for ever.
Do they still have what it takes to make a crucial contribution to the World Cup? This is what the upcoming Tests will help tell us.
Similarly, Schalk Burger will add to his 68-Test tally for the first time since 2011, and then there are Schalk Brits, Johan Goosen and Lwazi Mvovo suddenly back in the green and gold.
Meyer is right to say that this evening’s first Test is the sole priority at this stage, but besides the importance of a positive result, there is a definite opportunity for the team to send out a statement about their ability to overcome disruptions and player absences.
Despite the fact that Wales have a few injury absentees of their own, this is by no means a poor touring team, and you have only to look at their experienced tight five and brawny backline to realise that the Boks will be tested at their own game in many regards this evening.
Stand-in Bok skipper Matfield acknowledged that they were set to face a significant test against Wales.
“It’s still an experienced Welsh side despite a couple of injuries, and whenever you play Wales, it’s always a tough Test match,” he said.
“I think if you look at their strengths, there are probably two things that really stand out about them.
“Firstly, on defence they come hard off the line and make it difficult for you to attack against.
“Then if they have the ball in the right areas of the field, they are capable of keeping it through many phases. So we have worked on countering those things this week.”
Matfield also insisted that the players had not been distracted by Frans Steyn’s surprise withdrawal from the squad earlier in the week.
“We’ve been removed from that as players, and we’ve kept our focus on the game. A guy like Jan is getting an opportunity now.
“For us, whoever gets picked has a job to do, and it will be good to see how they come through.”
Speaking of which, Paul Jordaan and Wynand Olivier were called up to the Springbok squad yesterday in place of Steyn and Juan de Jongh, with the latter having been ruled out of the June Tests because of a severe chest infection.
Independent on Saturday