Boks may have to play second fiddleComment on this story
Cape Town - South Africa's annual quest to knock arch rivals New Zealand off their pedestal begins again in the Rugby Championship, with little to suggest any impending change in the status quo.
A key injury, disappointing returns by South African sides in the recent Super Rugby competition and unconvincing form by the Springboks in June's warm-up internationals suggest the challenge may again prove a bridge too far.
The Springboks finished runners-up to the all-conquering All Blacks in the four-nation competition - which also includes Australia and Argentina - last year, beaten both home and away by the New Zealanders in performances that emphasised the competitive nature of the rivalry but also the gulf in all-round quality between the two teams.
In nine Tests against the All Blacks since 2010, South Africa have won just once, when both Dan Carter and Richie McCaw were rested ahead of the 2011 World Cup.
“For us to go forward as a team and to make strides as a team, and get confidence going into next year, I think it is important for us to beat the All Blacks,” said captain Jean de Villiers at a recent event, with one eye clearly on next year's Rugby World Cup in England.
“We haven't done so in the last two years, that is one of our goals. We want to be the best team in the world and to get back to number one.”
That chance will come only after the Springboks have met the other two countries in the competition.
South Africa start the Rugby Championship with a home match against Argentina in Pretoria on Saturday before a return encounter in Salta the following weekend.
Then they take on Australia in Perth, followed by a first meeting with the All Blacks in Wellington - and then the return fixtures, on home soil, in late September and early October.
But they will have to do without veteran scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, whose ankle injury is a key blow to the plans of coach Heyneke Meyer.
He coaxed the midfield general out of international retirement last year and has since brought back several other veterans - Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and most recently Juan Smith.
Scrumhalf is one of the areas where the Boks lack depth and Du Preez's absence will be keenly felt.
There was, however, good news on Monday when team doctors passed fit props Frans Malherbe, Tendai Mtawarira and lock Eben Etzebeth, and crucially gave captain de Villiers the all-clear to play after months on the sidelines.
A knee injury kept De Villiers out of much of the Super Rugby season and the June internationals against Wales and Scotland.
Mtawarira has not played for the past six weeks with a neck injury.
But Matfield, who has a tear in his knee cartilage, will miss the start of the championship before being assessed ahead of next week's trip to Argentina.
Matfield returned from two years in retirement this year and captained the side in place of de Villiers in June when they scraped home against Wales but won fairly easily against Scotland.
None of the performances at home was flush with conviction, particularly the second test against Wales where the Boks squeezed home 31-30 in the last minute.
Again, South Africa's powerful forward game is their foundation but the backline has more potential than in the recent past, mainly since the inclusion of the unpredictable Willie le Roux.
The 24-year-old, moved from wing to fullback, has added a real element of flair with his ability to conjure up clever counter attacks.
But tactical kicking remains a weakness and Meyer expressed reservations about the conditioning of his side, saying they needed to be in better shape if they were to emerge on top.
“We are not where I want us to be. The one area we have to improve in, if we want to be the best in the world, is conditioning.
“If your tactical kicking isn't there you get fatigued, your skill levels go, your defence goes, the scrums go down and the penalties go up,” he told reporters at a press conference in the build-up to the first game. – Reuters