This week marks the one-year countdown to the Rugby World Cup in Britain and, as defending champions and, in all likelihood, winners of the Rugby Championship for a third successive time, New Zealand are clear favourites.
The All Blacks have suffered as many injuries to key players as the Springboks and Wallabies, but they have maintained their psychological hold over their rivals.
Since beating France in the 2011 final at Eden Park, New Zealand have played 34 Tests around the world, during which time they have drawn twice with Australia and lost once, against England at Twickenham in December 2012. That last result – a 38-21 rout – seemed odd at the time, but in the context of the foregoing it seems truly bizarre.
In the same time frame the Springboks have played 31 Tests, with two draws and seven defeats. To unpack the last figure, since Heyneke Meyer took over the coaching reins the Boks have lost narrowly to Australia twice, while the All Blacks have won all five fixtures against their traditional rivals.
It goes without saying then that, in order to win the World Cup, South Africa has to find a way to beat New Zealand.
The draw for the 2015 World Cup keeps the two apart until the semifinal stage. There are banana skins along the way for both sides, of course. The All Blacks should win their pool, but then they will have to face either Ireland or France in their quarterfinal at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
The Springboks have an equally daunting task in their quarterfinal at Twickenham. Assuming that they win pool B, where they are grouped with Samoa, Scotland, Japan and the USA, the Boks will face England, Wales or Australia in the last eight.
The last three have all been drawn in pool A and it is impossible to guess what might occur a year hence. One of the three will be eliminated at the pool stage, which might be deemed harsh, but then that is the nature of knockout tournaments.
The bottom line is that the Boks will have to be at their best to beat any of the trio, just to get further than they managed in 2011.
To be at their best Meyer needs to solve a few selection problems, but he has just 10 games left in which to do that. There are six Tests left in 2014 and, with the traditional June international window in abeyance next year, just four scheduled in 2015 ahead of the World Cup.
The 2015 Rugby Championship will be played over a single leg and the South African Rugby Union has arranged a friendly with Argentina at its conclusion.
Somehow, between now and then, Meyer needs to find a genuine tighthead prop to assist the ever-willing, but clearly exhausted Jannie du Plessis.
This year the coach has tried Frans Malherbe, Coenie Oosthuizen and Lourens Adriaanse, but none of the three is capable of putting pressure on the 58 times capped Du Plessis.
In 1994, Kitch Christie wrote a letter to the loosehead props of the provinces asking for help with the same problem. The replies told him to take a look at Tommie Loubscher, regarded by the majority as the hardest scrummager they had faced.
As it turned out, the Western Province farmer didn’t make it through to the World Cup and Balie Swart had to be converted from loosehead for the tournament.
The time may have come for a similar tactic from Meyer. He has already tried the conversion method with Oosthuizen, but the Free Stater had injury issues and technical deficiencies that made him a target for referees.
The Golden Lions tighthead, Ruan Dreyer, has been mentioned in dispatches and it might be sensible for Meyer to take him on the end-of-season tour to have a look.
Elsewhere, the 19-year-old Thomas du Toit has been sensational for the Sharks since making his Super Rugby debut back in May.
He may already be in line for Tendai Mtawarira’s position at both provincial and Test level, but now might be the time to have a look at him on the other side of the scrum. Again, the place to do it would be on the post-season tour. It is time to think out of the box.
It might be argued that Meyer’s other big issue is at lock, but in fact it is an injury rather than a personnel issue. In an ideal world Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth would be the first-choice pair for the World Cup, with Victor Matfield along for the ride as stalwart/assistant coach. Matfield’s halo slipped a little against the All Blacks last week, but his presence in the squad is important.
That is equally true of Fourie du Preez, whose pinpoint kicking game might have won the Test in Wellington.
Francois Hougaard was exposed by the injury to Ruan Pienaar at the end of the first half. He is a scrumhalf who plays to instructions and does not understand the dynamics of a game on the move.
Outside Hougaard, Handré Pollard proved he has what it takes. It is time to end the flyhalf debate, keep Pat Lambie as cover for both 10 and 15, and move on.