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Springbok puzzle for 2011 nears completion

The gentlemanly fisticuffs that we’s seeing across the Sanzar universe at the moment, while first and foremost a battle for regional supremacy, falls into the shadow of a much bigger prize. Rugby World Cup VII begins in earnest during the middle of September but the majority of Super rugby players will tell the media that “We are just taking it one week at a time.” Sure. Players may have turned into probots (to adapt a term) when facing the media, caused by the deepening tango of mistrust between the two parties perhaps, but if they tell you they aren’t thinking about it, they are telling a white lie.

Phil Kearns, that most Australian of hookers and now a commentary guru for Fox Sports, said once: “You can go to the end of time, the last World Cup in the history of mankind, and the All Blacks will be favourites for it.” It’s in the Seat of Blackness and after the terrible earthquake to hit Christchurch, it’s now their destiny to win it.

South Africa will most likely be, along with Australia, the biggest threat and best value for a wager. The Australians have the added advantage of playing a European nation with England looking the best value at the moment if they reach the semis. While the Six Nations often touts its equality to the Southern Hemisphere super powers, rugby fans of sense know that the South has a three in four chance of winning this year’s tournament.

For the Springboks, their team is forming, but not without complications. Based on the core group that De Villiers has picked his side from, the possible loss of Juan Smith and the Stormers’ malfunctioning backline are his biggest concerns. Bryan Habana is nearing the verge of the bench, and a man once seen as undroppable (a problem in itself) is facing one of the most testing moments of his career.

Of his competitors, Lwazi Mvovo, has continued on the upward curve and is now a serious rival at Springbok level. Gio Aplon, also an option at fullback, is suffering behind the Stormers’ but has proven his quality in the past. Francois Hougaard, just back from injury, is another who can play down the wing and JP Pietersen, who will get picked if fit, further crowds the match 22. Bjorn Basson is another on the fringes, and following the disruptive end to last year, needs to put in some fine performances to move back up the pecking order.

Jaque Fourie is back, and now playing regularly alongside Springbok teammate Jean de Villiers. If the pair made it to the World Cup, that would be the ideal option in midfield for the Boks. Their saving grace is that the Super 15 is a long tournament, so they have time to find their groove. Juan de Jongh is the unfortunate man — in this case the man-in-possession on the bench — since he won’t receive as much game time as he could have in another region. Of other possible centre contenders, Doppies la Grange has shone for the Lions while Meyer Bosman has been solid at the Sharks. Andries Strauss, who swapped Durban for Bloemfontein this year, has also excelled for the Cheetahs.

Fullback should — and there isn’t anything to suggest otherwise — see Frans Steyn take the number 15 jersey. Zane Kirchner has Aplon and Louis Ludik as possible company for his spot on the bench. There are rumours that Steyn is going to return to South Africa before the conclusion of the Super 15, with the Lions being mentioned as the most likely target at the moment. If that were to happen, all the better for the Boks.

Flyhalf has Morne Steyn as the incumbent, with Butch James and the extremely impressive Patrick Lambie as possible replacements. Lambie has moved into Super rugby mode effortlessly this season, and his level-headed play at number 10 has been one of the reasons why the Sharks have won four from five thus far. He would be back-up for Steyn, and a high quality one at that. James might even fall further down the order, with Peter Grant and Elton Jantjies being the dark horses. Judging by James returning to South Africa, for the Lions no less, before the end of the Super rugby competition shows that he still has a role to play.

Fourie du Preez is the undisputed first choice at scrumhalf, with Ruan Pienaar and Francois Hougaard providing back-up. Pienaar is currently in Ireland and while his participation in the tournament isn’t yet 100% certain, he is the most likely specialist back-up to Du Preez, with Hougaard offering his utility as extra value.

Pierre Spies needs to improve to justify his continued presence in the Springbok pack. After a superb Super 14 last year, the giant number eight had a poor international season and hasn’t been able to get off that train yet. He has Ryan Kankowski nipping at his heels, as he has done for the last few years. If Spies’ current form continues like this, Peter de Villiers would be making an aggressive decision if Kankowski started at number eight in the Boks’ first Test of the year. I think Spies will start regardless, since De Villiers has shown his penchant for the Bulls loose-forward. Duane Vermeulen looks the next most likely option if one or the other were unavailable.

Juan Smith’s injury has complicated matters somewhat, since the Cheetahs skipper was a guaranteed starter and is highly respected and feared around the world. Heinrich Brussouw is back after a year out from the game, and while he is still slightly off the pace, a few more weeks of the promising signs he has shown thus far suggest he will be a tough man to ignore with the starting Bok XV. Willem Alberts has continued to excel at the Sharks, and considering he plays much the same role as Smith does at the Cheetahs, would be sound cover for Smith. Schalk Burger would be competing with Brussouw for the number six jersey, with the Stormers’ skipper apparently suffering from injury fatigue. Dewald Potgieter is another De Villiers will have in mind for number six.

The locks choose themselves, since South Africa have come too far not to choose Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. Botha was back in the 22 this last weekend while Matfield, no spring chicken these days, is a class player who forms an irreplaceable part of the Springbok tight five. With Botha as his enforcer, the World Cup will be this pair’s last hurrah. Danie Rossouw, Flip van der Merwe and Andries Bekker form the replacement pool, which has been broadened even further through the fine performances of Steven Sykes and Alistair Hargrieves this year.

Upfront lies the biggest question. Bismarck du Plessis has been the stand out player at number two this year across the competition, so he must start. This raises the problem of John Smit, who, with hooker being his best position, might have to displace Jannie du Plessis at tighthead. Tendai Mtawarira appears to be the leading candidate at loosehead with Guthro Steenkamp lurking as his nearest challenger. There is also WP Nel, CJ Van der Linde and BJ Botha, who might return to South Africa after his contract at Ulster as depth on the bench. Bandisa Maku and Gary Botha are also options at hooker, though Chiliboy Ralepelle will most likely be in the squad considering he has been a favourite of De Villiers in the past. Smit would perhaps deputise as hooker if De Villiers opted for two props on the bench — a distinct possibility considering the wet conditions they are likely to encounter in New Zealand.

So, if the team were to be picked today, it would look something like this. I’ve gone for a 5-2 split on the bench since the Boks will look to build their triumph upon a physical game and rock solid defence:

15. Frans Steyn
14. Lwazi Mvovo
13. Jaque Fourie
12. Jean de Villiers
11. Gio Aplon
10. Morne Steyn
9. Fourie du Preez
8. Ryan Kankowski
7. Willem Alberts
6. Heinrich Brussouw
5. Victor Matfield
4. Bakkies Botha
3. Tendai Mtawarira
2. Bismarck du Plessis
1. John Smit (c)

Bench:
16. Guthro Steenkamp
17. Jannie du Plessis
18. Andries Bekker
19. Danie Rossouw
20. Pierre Spies
21. Patrick Lambie
22. Francois Hougaard

They could certainly beat any other nation, if playing at optimal level. Doubtless the team will look a bit different come the first Test of the year against Australia on July 23, but for all intents and purposes, the Springboks have a great chance to win the World Cup this year. They will need to get past Australia and New Zealand, and if they do that, they would be able to wear the title of world champions for another four years.