Boks head off into the great unknown

Eben Etzebeth (Gallo)
Eben Etzebeth (Gallo)

Johannesburg - A number of questions face the national team ahead of the Rugby Championship.

The problem with the Springboks’ 3-0 series win over a patchwork French team is that the average South African rugby fan now expects that the team will ride roughshod over Argentina, Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship.

A more reasonable expectation would be good old-fashioned competitiveness – starting with Saturday’s campaign opener
against Argentina in Port Elizabeth – after the Boks could only muster two wins in last year’s tournament.

While Guy Novès’ French team at times looked as though they were sleepwalking their way through the series, thanks to an interminable Top 14 season, the June Boks were characterised by desire (to play and to defend), an adventure of spirit and a togetherness that almost sucked the rest of us in.

But the Rugby Championship – with the All Blacks smarting from not putting away the British and Irish Lions, the Australians almost emerging from a second pre-season and Argentina not knowing which Pumas will turn up – will ask totally different questions.

The team going into the Rugby Championship isn’t quite the same team as the one that played against the French in June, so here are a few questions it will need to answer during the course of the tournament:

How will they deal with their absent captain?

Lions captain and official Bok captain Warren Whiteley has another five weeks before he’ll recover from his groin injury, meaning that, by the time he is back, the horse may have bolted.

The problem with Whiteley not being there is less about him being the best No 8 in the country and more about him being the quiet driver of the team culture that gave us the inspirational June Boks.

Whether the rest of the leaders in the team, led by Whiteley’s replacement Eben Etzebeth, can carry on the new-found tradition is a moot point.

What of the other missing players?

When the squad for the French test series was announced Lukhanyo Am, Ruan Combrinck and Rohan Janse van Rensburg were or would be injured.

Jan Serfontein emphatically reminding us why he was the World Junior Player of the Year in 2012 means the rusty Janse van Rensburg is not urgently needed.

But quite what Am, whose only sin after his call-up was to fracture his eye socket in the last game before camp, did to miss the boat is a mystery.

What’s the plan for the new additions in the squad?

Fullback Warrick Gelant, No 8 Dan du Preez and flyhalf Curwin Bosch are the new additions.

While all gifted, and one suspects Du Preez’s inclusion is thanks more to the paucity of natural eighthmen in the team, they come across as youngsters who need time to carry on working on their craft.

Who is Jantjies’ backup?

The Bok management team may have bought into many of the things that made the Lions Super Rugby finalists two seasons in a row, but they’re not quite convinced about having Elton Jantjies as the only flyhalf in the squad.

Backup is always good, but what actually happens if Jantjies gets injured or loses form like he did last year?

What’s a good number?

With nobody in their right mind necessarily thinking the Boks will win this year’s Rugby Championship, what’s a good number of games to win to signify progress from last year’s two wins? Maybe the best-case scenario would be winning both games against Argentina to arrest their recent slide of losses against smaller nations, a home game against the plucky Australia and an overdue win at home against the All Blacks.

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