JOHANNESBURG – We're only one week in and already you get the feeling there is a little more on the line in 2019 than just Super Rugby honours.
It’s a World Cup year and only 31 players will represent the Springboks in Japan from September to November. What that means is some very good, high quality players will have to stay at home and watch proceedings from afar.
Subsequently the race is underway to land a spot in Bok coach Rassie Erasmus’ squad, and what a race it’s going to be.
Week after week over the next few months there will be discussion and debate about players, about who is in form and who isn’t, who should go to Japan and who shouldn’t, and that’s all going to make for some fascinating viewing up until Erasmus makes his big announcement.
Already you can see some players know they have to up their game, especially in those positions where there are a number of players competing for just three or four spots in a certain position.
Veteran Schalk Brits, persuaded to come out of retirement by Erasmus last year, won the battle against Bongi Mbonambi hands down on Saturday but it will be interesting to see how the Stormers man - and his fellow teammates - responds after that defeat against the Bulls.
At hooker, Malcolm Marx is the best when he is in form, and he was good again against the Jaguares, but the Sharks’ Akker van der Merwe has the most to prove in the coming months, and he started his season with a bang against the Sunwolves.
One of those four men won’t go to Japan, so it’ll be fascinating to see how things transpire because if Van der Mewe has a storming season it will be very hard for Erasmus to leave him out. But then what about Brits; the next few months will provide the answer.
There are also several options at lock, and Eben Etzebeth and RG Snyman haven’t even played yet because of injury, while Franco Mostert is playing abroad.
The battle to win a place among the outside backs is also well and truly on, especially now that Warrick Gelant is fit again, while Damian Willemse appears to be preferred at fullback rather than flyhalf by Erasmus.
Then there is the overseas contingent including Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe, the latter one of the stars towards the back end of last season. Include here Aphiwe Dyantyi, S’bu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi and you realise Erasmus has some big calls to make later this year.
Also, at centre, Lukhanyo Am had an injury-blighted 2018 that allowed Jesse Kriel to star for the Boks so they will both be desperate to play at the World Cup. And boy, didn’t they both make fabulous starts to their year.
While no players who featured in the PRO14 were Bok regulars last year, could the likes of Cheetahs’ scrumhalf Shaun Venter, wing Rabz Maxwane or hooker Joseph Dwebe be surprise call-ups later this season?
There were surprises (how well the Bulls played and the Lions winning in Argentina) and shocks (how poor the Stormers were) in the first round of Super Rugby, and you can be sure the coming weeks will continue to thrill fans and produce plenty of talking points.
For several individuals chasing a World Cup dream, the stakes cannot be higher and each week will be viewed as a mini test and trial.
It will hopefully bring out the very best in South African rugby and lead to a successful Super Rugby competition and World Cup.@jacq_west