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Boks aim for the great comeback

And so it all starts again. New season, new faces and new expectations after the usual bout of sulking, slandering and speculating.

Clearly, not much has changed in South African rugby since last year’s Boks topped the charts for a few weeks with a Tri-Nations win that could just as easily have been another barrel-scraper.

The end-of-year tour to the United Kingdom was a mixed bag, with defeats against Ireland and England and rather lacklustre wins against Wales and Scotland. The final match of the season against the Pumas in Argentina was, by a long shot, not a thriller. The Boks prevailed, however, and returned home for a bitterly brief catnap before the wheels started rolling again.

What is quite clear is, that apart from winning the Tri-Nations, there was very little to get wildly excited about last season. In fact, post-August 21, the Springboks looked decidedly average, uncertain even.

Whether this was the fault of fatigue, complacency or just plain old burnout is up for debate, but the fact remains that at this stage we’re back at playing catch-up. Witness the Super 12.

The farcical nature of the game’s management at present and its inability to distance itself from provincialism, name-calling and quotas are the greatest worries. On the flipside, these issues have always been part and parcel of rugby in this part of the world, so there’s no use flogging a dead horse.

Positives, then.

Jake White’s unstinting faith and commitment to his players is great to see, although the Loftus faithful will no doubt disagree. The fact that smart positional experimentation is being considered is also a plus: a player of Jean de Villiers’s talent should not go to waste, and I am sure that many punters would like to see him play a greater role in decision-making.

As far as the forwards go, there is very little to criticise — unless, of course, John Smit just isn’t your man and Schalk Brits is. The unavailability of Bakkies Botha for the French Tests is a serious blow, but with Gerrie Britz and Danie Rossouw able to partner Victor Matfield at lock the Boks should do well.

Ashwin Willemse’s withdrawal from the squad might just be a blessing in disguise. While there’s no denying that the man has oodles of spirit, his injury woes should have ruled him out long ago.

So, Saturday is showtime, but as we all realise, the gig in East London will prove very, very little.

For a start, it’s pretty much a case of giving the lesser guns a run while seeing what proven players can do in unfamiliar positions.

The Cats’ Ricky Januarie is in at scrumhalf, De Villiers is at inside centre where he should be and Solly Tyibilika will do the fetching work at flank. Beanpole lock Albert van den Bergh is also back in the fray after a longish layoff and we’ll get to see Zim speedster Tonderai Chavanga in a Bok jersey at last.

In essence, it’s more a case of festival rugby than anything else — a sampler to get fans dreaming of glories to come; a marketing ploy camouflaged as an international.

There’s not much to be gained from picking apart the Uruguayans’ pedigree, just as there’s no point in speculating about what they might or mightn’t do on match day. The simple fact that their starting 15 have only 193 caps combined should be enough warning to keep the result (and celebrations afterward) in context — but it’s certain that there will be much back-slapping and congratulating on Saturday night.

Whatever the final score, it should be viewed as exactly that: a number with absolutely no bearing on where the Springboks are going, where they’ve been or how they will fare against France, Australia and New Zealand in the coming weeks.

Perhaps Los Teros will manage to expose a little weakness here and a slip-up there, but for all intents and purposes, it will be a three-riff single — great for a Saturday-night party, but certainly not the stuff a world-beating season is made of.

Patience is the key, and in two short weeks we’ll know exactly what this season has in store.

Teams

South Africa: 15 Percy Montgomery, 14 Tonderai Chavanga, 13 Marius Joubert, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Jaco van der Westhuyzen, 9 Enrico Januarie, 8 Jacques Cronje, 7 Danie Rossouw, 6 Solly Tyibilika, 5 Albert van den Berg, 4 Gerrie Britz, 3 CJ van der Linde, 2 John Smit (captain), 1 Guthro Steenkamp.

Uruguay: 15 Augustin Perez del Castillo, 14 Ivo Dugonjic, 13 Joaquin Pastore, 12 Hilario Canessa, 11 Carlos Baldasarri, 10 Emiliano Caffera, 9 Juan Campomar (captain), 8 Ignacio Conti, 7 Rafael Alvarez, 6 Alfredo Guiria, 5 Carlos Protasi, 4 Juan Alzueta, 3 Guillermo Storace, 2 Juan Perez, 1 Diego Silveira.

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