A patent desire to evolve should see the Springboks marking the third year in this World Cup cycle as one to remember, writes JON CARDINELLI.
History tells us that the third year in a World Cup cycle is always the toughest. In 2006, the Boks lost seven out of 12 Tests, and this rotten run of results so nearly cost coach Jake White his job.
The class of 2010 battled, losing five out of six matches in the Tri-Nations. Unsurprisingly, there were rumours that coach Peter de Villiers would be axed.
Both of those teams suffered notable injury setbacks over the course of their respective seasons. Both coaches were afflicted by off-field issues and frequently butted heads with their bosses at Saru.
The years 2006 and 2010 will go down as two of the worst in South African rugby history for a number of reasons. Will history repeat itself in 2014? Perhaps, and perhaps not.
There are already signs that Heyneke Meyer is starting to feel the strain. His call for the Super Rugby franchises to manage players in the national interest has fallen on deaf ears. The current squad for the Tests against Wales and Scotland is missing a number of key players. These players have been ruled out because of injuries, and many of them, including Bok captain Jean de Villiers, are injured because their franchises have played them into the ground during the Super Rugby tournament.
You can understand why Meyer is frustrated. The South African system continues to work against the Bok team rather than for it.
Following Frans Steyn's abrupt departure from the squad last Tuesday, it was revealed that there is a contractual dispute between the player and Saru. In the wake of these revelations, Meyer admitted that the team had been disrupted by Steyn's exit, and that the lead-up to the game in Durban had been 'one of the toughest weeks in my career'.
Meyer's hair will continue to grey over the course of the season, but he may yet find reason to smile. The South African system is not going to change any time soon, but there is cause to believe that the Boks will progress rather than stagnate in 2014.
The performance against Wales was encouraging. The 38-16 scoreline confirms it was a thrashing, as do the statistics of five tries scored and only one conceded.
What has been telling in the aftermath has been the attitude of the players and coaches. They were pleased with the performance in the sense that it was the first of the Test season, but refuse to believe that they've reached their goal regarding a standard of play that can win trophies.
One win does not a season make, and especially not a win against a weakened Wales side that's at the end of their own season. History reminds us that there's no reason to go overboard when celebrating this sort of success.
White's Boks beat Scotland twice in the early stages of 2006, while De Villiers's charges thumped Wales, Italy and then Six Nations champions France in 2010. Following those victories, complacency crept into the Boks' game, and they paid the price in the Tri-Nations.
The recent showing at Kings Park suggests Meyer's team may be more consistent in 2014. If there was a criticism of the Boks this past Saturday, it was that they battled to gel at times. Individually, there wasn't a player who disappointed.
Willie le Roux received due plaudits after a thrilling attacking performance, although he also produced a special showing with the boot and under the high ball. The old guard of Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana and Morné Steyn were excellent, while newcomers such as Jan Serfontein and Cornal Hendricks also impressed.
It will encourage Meyer to know that this Boks side can improve on the showing in Durban. They may have scored more than five tries had they been more clinical.
It will also please Meyer that several key players will return to bolster the side in the coming months. The Bok team that started against Wales was missing the first-choice loosehead and No 4 lock, not to mention its regular captain. The midfield that started was third-choice.
It was good to see these players taking their opportunities, and proving that there is strength in depth. Meyer has made it clear that he wants to take a strong squad to the 2015 World Cup, rather than just a strong starting XV.
But in the context of the current season, De Villiers will be back to lead the Boks in the Rugby Championship, as will Eben Etzebeth, who was nominated for the IRB Player of the Year award in 2013. It's also likely that Du Preez will be available for the duration of that all-important tournament, as Meyer has been working hard to secure the scrumhalf's release from Japanese club Suntory Sungoliath.
The build-up to the 2014 Test season hasn't been ideal, but Meyer's men may yet buck the trend and avoid the third-year slump.
If the performance against Wales this past Saturday is to be viewed as a starting point, then it stands to reason that the Boks will be even sharper come the Rugby Championship in August. They will need some luck with injuries, but the early signs suggest this ever-improving team is going to be a tough to beat.
Photo: Rory Keohane/HSM Images
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