Cape Town – The fragility of the Springbok side in the current Test season is reflected in how few of them would probably make the cut if hypothetically, suddenly available for the world-leading All Blacks.
Although South Africa are still almost four weeks away from their own, frankly daunting first Castle Rugby Championship meeting of 2016 with the easily top-ranked team and World Cup champions – in Christchurch on September 17 – earliest signs from the tournament have done little to question the wisdom of bookies in making the New Zealanders very firm favourites.
Kieran Read’s side have already trampled Australia 42-8 on their own terrain in Sydney, whilst the Boks contrastingly laboured to a late-charge 30-23 home victory over Argentina at Mbombela Stadium.
Both those outcomes simply deepen the widely-held perception that the All Blacks should coast to the title, even forecasting from this infant stage of the competition.
If anything, the combined evidence from the four Tests (three against Ireland, one Pumas) under Allister Coetzee’s guiding hand so far only suggests that the Boks – admittedly reshaping after a spate of very senior departures either through retirement or present unavailability -- are stuck in the midst of a largely mediocre global pack clearly trailing the NZ pace-setters by some distance.
It is sobering in our country, nevertheless, to contemplate just how greatly the once peerless rivalry between the Boks and All Blacks has become skewed one way (sadly not ours) over the past seven years in particular.
Think back to 2009: that was the last period of notable dominance by the Boks over their traditionally greatest rivals, when they won three Tests on the trot against them in the former Tri-Nations and romped to the title (21 points) by eight points from NZ (13) and way ahead of the Wallabies (seven).
The Boks have regressed rather badly in the bilateral duel ever since and also not won the southern hemisphere competition subsequently.
Great, now-retired loose forward Richie McCaw earlier this year hailed that John Smit-led Bok side of 2009 as the best international team he faced in his career, and at the time precious few New Zealanders would have cracked the SA starting XV.
The Bok team that finally made sure of the trophy by pipping the All Blacks 32-29 in Hamilton, after respective clear-cut wins at home, included such heavyweight figures at the time as Frans Steyn, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Bismarck du Plessis, an emerging, then-dynamic Tendai Mtawarira and Smit.
Of the starting line-ups from the Hamilton tussle, perhaps only three All Blacks – Joe Rokocoko for Odwa Ndungane at right wing, Dan Carter for Morne Steyn at flyhalf, Read for Pierre Spies at No 8 – would have fairly confidently found places in the Bok ranks if made available.
Naturally there would have been a strong case for the iconic McCaw as open-side flank, but that was also the supreme year of a certain Heinrich Brussow, who seriously got under the All Blacks’ skins -- so no guarantees for McCaw on that front.
Fast-forward to 2016, however, and as things stand a very contrasting picture emerges: a comparison between the Bok side which edged out the Pumas on Saturday and the NZ XV which dismantled Australia suggests demoralizingly few South African candidates who could decisively beef up an All Black combo.
Given how new they still are to the Test scene, it is perfectly feasible that as the Rugby Championship develops, men like Ruan Combrinck, Vincent Koch and Warren Whiteley will properly announce themselves as international players, especially if they can excel against the very New Zealand.
But right now, hardly helped by the disappointing under-delivery on prior-known playing levels of senior troopers like Adriaan Strauss, Francois Louw and others, it is difficult to look beyond that magnificent, tough-as-teak young athlete Eben Etzebeth for any Bok near-certainties to bolster the All Blacks if invited.
Etzebeth would almost certainly warrant eclipsing Sam Whitelock to a lock berth, creating an irresistible partnership with Brodie Retallick regardless of which of the two wore four or five – both have the multi-skilled makeup to be able to grace either jersey comfortably.
The Boks have other impressive second-row potential in Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit, of course, although they are currently engaged in a close tussle between each other just for one Bok spot, never mind any All Black-bolstering considerations.
Certainly Faf de Klerk has been one of relatively few genuine revelations of the Bok 2016 campaign thus far … but would the nippy little terrier supplant 51-cap Aaron Smith yet from the NZ scrumhalf jersey? I seriously doubt it.
I believe that if Strauss was in considerably better form he would potentially push out Codie Taylor from the hooker’s position, although remember that the latter only started for the All Blacks in Sydney because the high-quality Dane Coles is nursing some damaged ribs.
These were the respective Bok and All Black starting XVs from the first round of the Championship; ignoring injures that occurred during each match, decide for yourself which South Africans might definitively improve New Zealand on an ongoing basis …
South Africa (beat Argentina 30-23, Nelspruit): 15 Johan Goosen, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Adriaan Strauss (capt), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
New Zealand (beat Australia 42-8, Sydney): 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (capt), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
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