Cape Town - Springbok captain Jean de Villiers has recovered from the knee injury which kept him out of the June Tests and is back in the national squad for the forthcoming Rugby Championship.
De Villiers is one of six players returning from injury after missing the entire or a part of the Castle Lager Incoming Series. The others are Tendai Mtawarira (prop), Frans Malherbe (prop), Eben Etzebeth (lock), Patrick Lambie (flyhalf/fullback) and Damian de Allende (centre).
De Allende, who was forced to withdraw from the squad in June because of a knee ligament injury, and scrumhalf Cobus Reinach are the only two uncapped players in the 30-man Springbok squad.
The national selectors have also retained four debutants from the June series for the Castle Lager Rugby Championship - Cornal Hendricks (wing), Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje (loose forward), Lood de Jager (lock) and Handré Pollard (flyhalf).
“It’s great to have Jean back to lead the side in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship,” said Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer.
“Victor Matfield and Jan Serfontein both did superbly well in his absence, but he is our captain and I’m sure he will slot back into the side without any difficulty. The same goes for Eben, Frans and Patrick, all of whom have been part of the squad before.
“We will medically assess all the players in the squad in Johannesburg next week. This will not only include the players who missed the June Tests because of injury, but also someone such as Mtawarira, who has been out of action for a while. We will deal with every player and his needs individually.”
Commenting on the inclusion of Hendricks, a recent gold medal winner in sevens at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland, Mohoje, De Jager and Pollard, Meyer said: “These players have impressed from the first minute they joined us. This is a step up for all of them, but that is the kind of challenge we thrive on.
“It’s never easy cutting a squad down in size and we’re fortunate that we have a number of experienced players who will be on stand-by should their services be needed.”
Meyer said he is looking forward to the Castle Lager Rugby Championship, which kicks off on Saturday, 16 August when Australia host New Zealand in Sydney and the Springboks take on Argentina at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria (kick-off at 17:00).
The Springbok squad will gather in Johannesburg for a pre-competition camp from August 4-8 and then again on August 10 in Pretoria, where they will prepare for the Test against Argentina.
“We’ve been steadily improving over the past two years but another step-up is needed this season,” said Meyer.
“It’s been a theme for us since the start of the season and we must simply keep on accelerating in the coming two months. We’ve set ourselves some goals for the Rugby Championship and we’ll have to be focused and switched on from the moment we get together in Johannesburg.
“Winning matches and scoring tries remain foremost in our minds. During the four matches in June, we scored 23 tries, which we were very happy with. I think we can be proud of the rugby we played against Wales and Scotland, but that is in the past now and we have a new competition to get ready for.
“There are many good things we can build on from the June series, but also some things we need to work on if we’re going to be competitive in the coming months. It’s a challenge we relish though and I can’t wait to get going.”
Two senior Springboks who will play in Japan in the coming months, JP Pietersen and Schalk Burger, were not considered for the start of the competition. They have to report to their respective clubs next week.
“Obviously the squad can change during the course of the Rugby Championship and although JP and Schalk were not considered at this stage, they could still feature later in the competition,” said Meyer.
Injured players who were not available for selection after featuring in 2013 or earlier in 2014, are Flip van der Merwe (knee), Pieter-Steph du Toit (knee), Arno Botha (knee), Pierre Spies (bicep), Fourie du Preez (ankle) and Jaque Fourie (ankle).
The Springbok squad for the Castle Lager Rugby Championship 2014
Willem Alberts, Bakkies Botha, Schalk Brits, Marcell Coetzee, Lodewyk de Jager, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Francois Louw, Frans Malherbe, Victor Matfield, Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, Gurthrö Steenkamp, Adriaan Strauss, Duane Vermeulen
Damian de Allende, Jean de Villiers (captain), Bryan Habana, Cornal Hendricks, Francois Hougaard, Patrick Lambie, Willie le Roux, Lwazi Mvovo, Ruan Pienaar, Handré Pollard, Cobus Reinach, Jan Serfontein, Morné Steyn
The full Rugby Championship schedule for 2014 is (SA kick-off times):
Round 1 – August 16
12:05: Australia v New Zealand (ANZ Stadium, Sydney)
17:05: Springboks v Argentina (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Round 2 – August 23
09:35: New Zealand v Australia (Eden Park, Auckland)
21;40 (16h40 local time): Argentina v Springboks (Estadio Padre Ernesto Martearena, Salta)
Round 3 – September 6
09:35: New Zealand v Argentina (MacLean Park, Napier)
12:10 (18h10 local time): Australia v Springboks (Patersons Stadium, Perth)
Round 4 – September 13
09:35 (19h35 local time) New Zealand v Springboks (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
12:05: Australia v Argentina (Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast)
Round 5 – September 27
17:05: Springboks v Australia (DHL Newlands, Cape Town)
TBC: Argentina v New Zealand (Estadio Ciudad de La Plata, La Plata)
Round 6 – October 4
17:05: Springboks v New Zealand (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
00:40 (Sunday, 5 October): Argentina v Australia (Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, Mendoza)