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Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
Rugby Championship - South Africa Preview
Springboks must prove doubters wrong
Stephen Nell
August 8, 2013
Veteran scrum-half Fourie du Preez is set to be a key figure for the Springboks © Getty Images
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Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is busy with the delicate balancing act of short-term pressures and long-term planning as South Africa approach the Rugby Championship.

Analysis from ESPNscrum

  • Key Player: Fly-half Morne Steyn appears to have emerged from the doldrums having finished as the leading points scorer in Super Rugby and steered the Boks to glory back in June. His will need to maintain those high standards if the Boks are to challenge for the silverware.
  • Rising Star: 2012 IRB Junior Player of the Year Jan Serfontein graduated to the Boks ranks earlier this year and already has a try to his name - expect him to be given further chances to impress.
  • Crunch Clash: The Boks escaped with a draw in Argentina last year and when they take on the Pumas in Mendoza they will need to show they have learnt their lessons and that they are genuine rivals for title-favourites New Zealand.
  • Coaching Clinic: Heyneke Meyer is under increasing pressure to inspire a return to greatness from his side and really needs a victory against the All Blacks to silence his doubters.
  • Verdict: The schedule appears to have been kind to the Boks with victories over Argentina likely to generate momentum but their title challenge is set to falter with visits to Brisbane and Auckland.
  • Odds: The Springboks are 5/1 second favourites for the southern hemisphere crown with Bet365

The most telling selection ahead of the first match against Argentina in Soweto on August 17 was that of veteran scrum-half Fourie du Preez, who was picked from Japanese club Suntory Sungoliath.

Du Preez hasn't played in a match of any real intensity since South Africa's World Cup quarter-final defeat to Australia at Rugby World Cup in 2011, but on his shoulders rests a lot.

Meyer's big challenge beyond 2011 was that of establishing a new leadership core after Du Preez and other senior Springboks such as John Smit, Jaque Fourie and Danie Rossouw had moved on. Remember also that Victor Matfield had retired and Schalk Burger was out with a knee injury.

To some extent Meyer succeeded, with Francois Louw, Bryan Habana and Adriaan Strauss having established themselves as able lieutenants to skipper Jean de Villiers.

But even by the end of last season there was still a transitional feel to the Springboks and barring last year's match against Australia in Pretoria and their last outing against Samoa they just haven't produced compelling performances.

Enter Du Preez and suddenly there seems to be an air of assuredness. He is a masterful orchestrator on a rugby field and a cool head off it. South Africa will not be able to call on his services in away matches in the Rugby Championship, but it's about his general input as much as what he can do on the field.

That may well be a significant feature of his contribution in this year's tournament as it would be a surprise if Meyer juggled his scrumhalves between home and away matches.

Nevertheless, Meyer has not been able to find a scrum-half capable of taking charge of the No.9 jersey and that is where Du Preez comes into the mix with a long-term vision in mind.

It is the one position where South Africa have traditionally been blessed, but neither Ruan Pienaar nor Francois Hougaard have delivered. Finding a man who can make the No.9 jersey his own is of paramount importance and it's getting late in the day with England 2015 on the horizon.

While Meyer currently boasts an impressive enough record on the surface - the Springboks have won 10, drawn 2 and lost 3 matches under him - the South African public is not yet convinced.

The match in which the present Bok coaching staff's shares plunged in the eyes of the rugby public was the 16-all draw against Argentina in Mendoza last year. An unhappy tour to the Antipodes followed and even now after a six-match winning streak doubts remain.

Meyer can't expect goodwill either because the Springboks are yet to grip the imagination under him. There was too much reliance on the individual brilliance of Bryan Habana and the traditional South African strength of defence. He will be marked on whether the Springboks take the next step.

Why might South Africa win the Rugby Championship?

They have a good draw starting with home and away matches against Argentina before heading to Australasia and completing the tournament with return fixtures against the Wallabies and All Blacks. If they beat the Pumas twice, they will enter matches against their SANZAR rivals on the back of eight victories in-a-row.

 
"Watching South Africa's teams in action in Super Rugby, one can't help wonder whether there is enough brains in their game to beat Australia and New Zealand over the course of a tournament."
 

South Africa also appear to have added an attacking string to their bow. Meyer picked the dynamic Willie le Roux for the June internationals and the selection reaped dividends. Le Roux crafted three tries in the Springboks' 56-23 rout of Samoa in Pretoria and is used with particularly good effect as first receiver during phase play.

Fly-half Morné Steyn also rediscovered his mojo in this year's Super Rugby tournament and should be an asset as opposed to the liability he was with his uncharacteristically poor form and woeful goalkicking last year.

Apart from Le Roux, Meyer has also done well with the selection of JJ Engelbrecht at outside centre, while lock Eben Etzebeth will grow in stature in the No.4 jersey.

Bismarck du Plessis is also back and will be competing with Adriaan Strauss for the hooker berth, which gives the Boks two robust and world class options. Bath flank Francois Louw has also offered a comforting presence with his strong personality and breakdown prowess.

But equally one can make a case for why things will go pear-shaped.

The Springboks don't have a tight-head prop to back up Jannie du Plessis and the effect of injuries to key leaders may be devastating.

Watching South Africa's teams in action in Super Rugby, one can't help wonder whether there is enough brains in their game to beat Australia and New Zealand over the course of a tournament.

The rolling maul works for South African teams, but it's a 'go to tactic' that is very revealing. So too the fact that Steyn was prepared to launch up-and-unders from free kicks awarded to them in their unimpressive performance against Scotland in June. Turning your possession into 50-50 ball suggests you don't know what to do it. It is concerning to say the least and begs the question whether South Africa have the guile to finish above either Australia or New Zealand.

They certainly have the muscle and with an underpinning philosophy of 'execution over innovation', they probably won't concern themselves too much with taking the All Blacks and Wallabies on at their own game.

The word execution, in fact, embodies what Du Preez is all about. There will be a purpose to his kicks and accuracy in what he does. It is something Meyer hasn't been able to coax out of all of his players in key positions and he will hope that his trusted general's focus rubs off on the rest.

With that in mind it will also be interesting to see whether Meyer reverts to type with a conservative fullback in Kirchner or whether he backs Le Roux to replicate what he did against the lesser lights of world rugby against the best sides in the world.

Either way, this Rugby Championship is one of critical importance for the Springboks. Meyer appears to be falling back on what he knows and will hope to find answers to the many questions that remain.

South Africa squad:

Forwards: Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Juandre Kruger, Francois Louw, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Gurthro Steenkamp, Adriaan Strauss, Flip van der Merwe, Franco van der Merwe, Duane Vermeulen

Backs: Bjorn Basson, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers (captain), Fourie du Preez, JJ Engelbrecht, Bryan Habana, Zane Kirchner, Pat Lambie, Willie le Roux, Ruan Pienaar, Jan Serfontein, Morne Steyn, Jano Vermaak

Can Boks skipper Jean de Villiers inspire great things from his side? © Getty Images
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