Cape Town – It is a good thing that Rassie Erasmus has a firm reputation as a meticulous planner and good spotter of potholes, if you like.
The Springbok head coach will know full well, then, that certain hazards lie in the way even as his charges face one of the easier World Cup 2019 pools -- on paper -- for qualification for the quarter-finals.
For while a big drawback in Pool B is having to negotiate it alongside defending champions New Zealand, the major plus is that the Boks really ought to be the other team from the five going through anyway, whether it is in first or second spot.
Having stiffened up their act so commendably during 2019 so far, Erasmus’s Rugby Championship title-winners look even more massively unlikely now to stumble against any of relative minnows Italy, Canada or Namibia.
But there is another potential pitfall that some Bok supporters may not have given special thought to yet: the danger that the national side go a little “soft” after that weighty opener against the very All Blacks at Yokohama on September 21 … now almost exactly a month away and a game that will truly require the two, time-honoured fierce rivals to hit the RWC ground running.
While NZ would be in much the same boat, the next three matches in Pool B run the risk of not stretching the Boks in quite the manner they might like when it comes to sharpening them suitably for the tougher demands of the knockout phase.
Especially for the winners of the hotly-anticipated group opener, the next three fixtures – with due respect to the opponents, of course – are likely to represent a noticeable comedown in intensity and the calibre of resistance put up by the underdogs on each occasion.
Although they are on different sides of the draw for the quarter-finals, a team like Eddie Jones’s England could have quite the opposite experience in pool play.
Just for starters, they are in the most obvious “group of death” -- Pool C -- where only two of three big names among the five (themselves, France and Argentina) can progress; the outsiders for onward passage in that bunch are Tonga and the United States.
So not only do England face two more genuine strength-versus-strength opponents in the pool, but it also happens that both of their strenuous Argentinean and French showdowns come at the business end of the group phase.
The one advantage to that scheduling arrangement is that Jones’s charges, assuming they do make the knockout cut, should be truly battle-ready for whoever they next face in the last eight.
While both the Boks and All Blacks will desperately want to win their pool opener, in order to avoid a likely quarter-final against dangerous Ireland for the runners-up, the one “advantage” – if that is the right word -- to losing would be the special need to keep eyes firmly on the ball for the rest of the group roster, as a second defeat could just imperil onward status.
But if we take the optimistic line of assuming that the increasingly shipshape Springboks pip the All Blacks, the next two or three weeks in Japan could subconsciously be a little more relaxed for the players, in some senses, than Erasmus and his lieutenants might like.
Against that backdrop, South Africa would certainly be even more strongly fancied from that point to avoid banana-peel occurrences against any of the Namibians (September 28), Italians (October 4) or Canadians (October 8).
None of those foes feature among the top 10 on the latest World Rugby rankings, with Italy the best of the trio at 13th (including being easily the weakest of the Six Nations teams, for example), and Canada (21st) and Namibia (23rd) particularly far down the ladder.
That means three games in succession -- before the more acid environment of the quarter-finals -- where the Boks should not be too greatly stretched and will have to be wary of the possibility that they get just a bit of an inflated belief in their own powers.
At the last World Cup -- in 2015, when Heyneke Meyer guided them to bronze – the Boks ended their pool commitments also with a low-stress match, against the United States in London where they romped to a lopsided 64-0 win.
Immediately before that, though, they had played Scotland at Newcastle (just across the border, so virtually a home match for the Scots) and the notoriously physical Samoans at Birmingham to stabilise their campaign after the Japan shocker at Brighton.
While the Boks prevailed comfortably enough in each of those two games, they certainly had the effect of keeping them “honest” and sufficiently tuned-up for a later quarter-final victory over Wales.
The RWC 2019 Springboks may just enter the last eight with a slightly more undercooked feeling, even if Erasmus is highly likely to be mindful of it …
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