Shrinking scope for new Boks to 'bust in'

Jacques Nienaber (Gallo Images)
Jacques Nienaber (Gallo Images)

Aspirant first-time Springboks and others wishing to firmly re-establish their Test credentials will be getting increasingly restless about the deepening absence of frontline rugby in 2020.

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Not only is this season's Super Rugby - not yet officially scuttled but seemingly on the brink - highly unlikely to be continued, but South Africa's intended Test roster for the calendar year, like all other nations, hangs in the balance due to the ravages of the coronavirus.

The most optimistic scenario, it seems, is that the World Cup holders from 2019 may finally see some follow-up action in either the Rugby Championship, still scheduled at this point for August and September, or deeper into the South African spring if Scotland can arrive by then for a possibly pushed-back, two-Test tour first diarised for July.

But those undertakings, as well as the traditional end-of-year tour of Europe, remain mired in uncertainty: a return to contact sports like both soccer and rugby seem anything but top of mind right now to various governments and their scientists/medical advisors planetwide.

In short, the worst-case scenario warning recently from Bill Beaumont - re-elected a few days ago as chairperson of World Rugby - that all remaining Test rugby in 2020 may be a write-off regrettably stays a feasible likelihood.

Against that possible backdrop, the Boks' first ever full idle year since the establishment of professional rugby-proper in the mid-1990s would badly impede the hopes of players wanting to "gate-crash" established berths in the national side.

A headline, once-every-dozen-years series against the British and Irish Lions that is the undoubted prime attraction of 2021 - and hopefully in a considerably more normalised world by then - would hardly be the place to suddenly blood raw players unless a major injury crisis has struck the squad.

New head coach Jacques Nienaber would have hoped, by the time the three-Test series comes along in mid-winter next year, to have been able to gauge through earlier exposure in green and gold whether any fresh faces on the Springbok scene potentially cut it against the collective pride of Britain and Ireland.

But just how many prior Tests will the national team have played?

Be sure that SA Rugby, in the event that 2020 goes entirely "dry" for the Boks, will seek a minimum of one or two earlier Test matches next year before the Lions hit our shores.

Even that modest sort of lead-up, though, would more likely be a chance for existing Bok players to get re-accustomed to each other than for a raft of new caps to come into the picture.

Only a couple of months ago, Nienaber and his lieutenants would have reasonably expected to use a few Tests in 2020 to experiment with some potentially freshening figures.

A player like Aphelele Fassi, the rangy, excitement-laden fullback from the Super Rugby table-leading Sharks has reportedly been earmarked for some maiden game-time against relative minnows and first-time SA visitors Georgia in July - a suitably relaxed atmosphere, you would expect, for a debutant.

Of all the endangered Bok Tests this year, however, that one is tipped to be likeliest to fall by the wayside now, and there could be further, more prominent sacrifices.

So if Nienaber enters the rigours of the Lions series with a more limited notebook than he would like on some of South Africa's young guns or possible "comeback" players, it would naturally be understandable for him to stick more rigidly to personnel who mastered the systems and culture so well for the Webb Ellis Cup success in Japan.

If that does prove the strong feature of the Bok starting troops for the first Test against the Lions - as things stand, only Tendai Mtawarira from the victorious XV who began the final against England in Yokohama will definitely be unavailable - it will be a significant change from the pattern in the two previous Lions tours here (1997 and 2009).

It is a pleasing little statistic to South Africans that, by the time the 2021 Lions arrive, it will mark a third successive visit by them some two years after a Springbok World Cup tournament triumph: the 1997 Lions had played the 1995 RWC-winning Boks, and the 2009 tourists tackled the RWC champions from 2007.

By the time the '97 Boks played the Lions in the first Test at Newlands, around half of the 1995 starting icons had either stepped down from the international fray (including skipper Francois Pienaar) or fallen by the wayside.

While Andre Joubert, James Small, Japie Mulder, Joost van der Westhuizen, Ruben Kruger, Hannes Strydom, Mark Andrews (back at more familiar lock after playing at No 8 in the World Cup final) and Os du Randt remained, seven players who had not begun the immortal Ellis Park date had been introduced subsequently for the Capetonian crunch: Edrich

Lubbe, Andre Snyman, Henry Honiball, Naka Drotske, Adrian Garvey, Andre Venter and Gary Teichmann, who was also the new captain.

In the 2009 Lions series, won 2-1 by the Boks to avenge the 1-2 outcome of a dozen years earlier, there were also significant changes, from the RWC 2007 final-winning line-up, for the first Test in Durban.

The only common denominators were Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez, Juan Smith, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and John Smit ... again meaning seven newer faces in the mix.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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