Bok preparation starts in Brisbane

The World Cup won’t be won or lost in the Rugby Championship, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

There should be no analysis of SA’s contact session against a World XV at Newlands, but there should be plenty of thanks that inspirational Springbok captain Jean de Villiers survived his 20-minute reintroduction to rugby after seven months of knee reconstruction rehabilitation.

Outside of De Villiers’s comeback there was no value to a match against a scratch World XV that spent the week enjoying Cape Town.

The World Cup preparation starts against Australia in Brisbane this weekend. Judgements, or at least an introduction to these judgements, can only be made then on combinations and on player transitions from Vodacom Super Rugby to Test rugby.

There is nothing to be gained from hitting out against a team of individuals who play under a global banner.

The Boks needed to be challenged through structure, especially in the set piece. A World XV offers nothing of the sort. It didn’t the last time they played at Newlands, it didn’t on Saturday and it won’t if ever such a fixture is in the future paraded as an international.

Ticket prices were ridiculous and the support at the ground was indicative of the lack of interest in the opposition. There was no intensity and the Boks were never under pressure to be quite frank.

We know how good Warren Whiteley, Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende were in Super Rugby. We know they are talented players, but it’s only when they play a Test team that we’ll see how the afore-mentioned trio will cope with the environment and mental demands that separate Test rugby from Super Rugby.

Australia, in Brisbane, will be tough – arguably more difficult than the one-off Test against the All Blacks in Johannesburg. Don’t be surprised if the Boks struggle; don’t despair if they end up on the losing side.

The Rugby Championship, shortened to three matches in which some teams play two at home and some play just the one, is a preparation to the World Cup. Teams will be playing different combinations and will be giving away little in terms of World Cup plans and each coach will simply be wishing away the 80 minutes in the hope that injuries are kept to a minimum.

No Rugby Championship (formerly Tri-Nations) tournament winner in a World Cup year has ever transferred that success to World Cup glory. Each of the coaches will be mindful of this, especially among the more superstitious.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has indicated he wants to give the entire squad game time against Australia, New Zealand and Argentina in the Rugby Championship. The word is he will rest the core of his preferred starting XV for the last World Cup warm-up against Argentina in Buenos Aires.

Meyer, like the other coaches, is in a no-win situation over the next month. The year won’t be defined until October in England. For now it's about player management, testing the depth of the squad and ensuring each player going to the World Cup has experienced the pressure of Test rugby.

Commercial reality dictates the Rugby Championship, however bastardised, had to be played. Convention would have been to allow each team a structured buildup in a World Cup year without the complication and obligation of the tournament.

Judgements will be made among the passionate rugby supporters. It's the nature of the beast and the supporter’s right, but for those privileged enough to be the storytellers of the Springboks, be it through digital, print or TV, there has to be a constant reinforcement that the World Cup won’t be won or lost in the Rugby Championship.

Social media reaction to the Boks' win against the World XV was predictably divided. Some raved and some ranted. Again, the point is that there would be nothing accurate in assessing a Bok performance against a team that had never played together.

Meyer has said he will continue to play a combination of youth and experience in the Rugby Championship.

Australia, with a settled unit and the familiarity of a coach who has enjoyed the luxury of coaching the core of the team in Super Rugby, will provide more answers as to the potency and potential of De Allende and Kriel in the midfield.

The debate at No 8 will be influenced by who plays and what happens in Brisbane. Other areas under examination include the loose-forward makeup, that of the back three (as a collective) and the game management of the halfbacks.

Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images