Captain Siya Kolisi and his World Cup-winning Springboks will return to the international stage in Pretoria on Friday against Georgia in conditions far removed from what they would have wished for.
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber said he, the players and everyone connected with the Springboks “just want to get used to international rugby again.”
“Let us get used to the pace of the game again, the physicality, the small margins that determine the outcome of international matches. We believe we have a good balance with a number of experienced campaigners and a few young players who have made strong statements this season.
“They have proved that they deserve an opportunity at this level, and the commitment and enthusiasm they displayed at training has been striking.”
Georgia, who lost 46-19 at the 2003 World Cup in the only previous meeting between the countries, will rely heavily on France-based players, choosing 12 in the starting line-up.
“It is a big honour to play against the world champions,” said coach Levan Maisashvili, who had a three-month internship at the Sharks 15 years ago.
Instead of a cheering, flag-waving capacity crowd, the men in green and gold will run into an empty Loftus Versfeld stadium that can accommodate 50,000 spectators.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit South Africa harder than any other major rugby nation with the Springboks unable to play a Test since defeating England in the 2019 World Cup final in Japan 20 months ago.
A 7pm kick off means the world champions will not only face endless rows of empty seats because of Covid-19 restrictions, but also feel the mid-winter cold. Kolisi, however, is still thrilled at the prospect of playing international rugby again.
“Of course we would have loved to play on a warm evening in a packed stadium, you saw the jubilant reactions of all South Africans when we returned home with the World Cup trophy. The Springboks are truly a team of the people now.”
The Springboks have handed first Test caps to wingers Rosko Specman and Aphelele Fassi. Specman, who has been loan to the Stormers from the Cheetahs, was part of the South African sevens team that won bronze medals at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Fassi, who plays for the Sharks, is widely regarded as the most exciting backline prospect in South Africa. There could also be a Test debut for bulldozing eighthman, Jasper Wiese, who starts the test on the bench.