This is a critical Rugby Championship in terms of the Springboks settling on their core squad and strategy for the 2015 World Cup, writes RYAN VREDE.
I'm not a believer in focusing on a World Cup at the expense of present results. In my view, what happens in a four-year cycle between the global showpiece is more important than what does at a tournament where one off-day or an individual error could end a campaign.
However, with Heyneke Meyer having achieved the goal of winning consistently at home and away in the aforementioned cycle, he has earned the right to broaden his vision to include serious and purposeful focus on squad composition and strategy for the World Cup.
In fairness to Meyer it appears he settled on the majority of players who'll travel to England next year and from a strategic standpoint has grown the Springboks' attacking game, while maintaining a high defensive standard. Now it's time to refine those elements.
This will be a decisive tournament in terms of establishing the aptitude of some talented newcomers. By way of example, Meyer had hoped to see Damian de Allende in a Test environment during the Incoming Tours, but will now have to examine him in the Rugby Championship. There is a risk involved and that is one Meyer must decide whether he's willing to take. This of course is true for Handré Pollard, Lodewyk de Jager, Cornal Hendricks, Cobus Reinach, Oupa Mahoje, all of whom have never played in the tournament.
Again, winning should always be the first priority, but in the context of World Cup planning Meyer should be given breathing room to experiment with these Test rookies, albeit not all at once. There would be enough experienced starters around them to lesser the risk, and if Meyer wants to explore this avenue he could be closer to his ideal 30-man squad come the end of the tournament. The year-end tour would then provide an opportunity for further examination of those he deems good enough to make the final cut, and in conditions that will simulate what they'll experience at the World Cup.
Aside from these rookies, there is also an opportunity to establish which of the senior players can be trusted to perform at expected levels through to the World Cup. Admittedly a year is a long time in rugby, and a good Rugby Championship is by no means an absolute indication of a player's ability to replicate that form in September/October 2015.
But Meyer can get a better feel for where the players in question stand. In this regard I wait to see how Victor Matfield comes through the toughest test of his ability (physical, mental and technical) since his return from retirement. With high quality options at No 5 lock desperately thin, the Springboks need the veteran second rower to prove he is worthy ongoing investment.
Others like Ruan Pienaar, Schalk Brits, Francois Hougaard and Pat Lambie have the opportunity to dispel any reservations Meyer has about their value to the Springboks.
Sadly there are a number of first-choice players unavailable, masterful scrumhalf Fourie du Preez (ankle injury), Pieter-Steph du Toit (knee) who Meyer sees as the long-term answer at No 5 lock, JP Pietersen (club commitments in Japan) and Jaque Fourie (ankle injury) among them. Others like Arno Botha and Pierre Spies (both long-term injuries) may yet force their way into contention next season but start at a distinct disadvantage.
Critically he will also be wise to offer opportunities to more black players in his squad. Saru, under pressure from government, has exerted immense pressure on Meyer to improve black representation and he should expect to be told how many black players must be included in his World Cup squad for it to get the political stamp of approval. Giving those players game time between now and the World Cup will aid his cause to build a squad of depth and competence.
The depth of talent available to Meyer is such that with considered blooding of the rookies, the Springboks' ambition to win the Rugby Championship should not be compromised. There is the potential for success on multiple fronts.
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