There is immense pressure on Heyneke Meyer and the Boks to salvage what has the potential to turn into a failed season, writes RYAN VREDE.
And two wins in the next fortnight would ease that pressure significantly. The issue is not only one of capacity. The team has the capacity to beat the Wallabies and All Blacks. This should be heartening for the South African rugby fraternity, whose faith in the team was shaken on the away leg of the Rugby Championship.
The challenge is essentially a mental and technical one in equal measure. The mental challenge – the most significant one faced during Meyer's tenure – will take its toll in the coming days and only be eased by victory at Newlands. This type of pressure could have debilitating effects on certain players and part of Meyer's duties this week will be to identify those men and equip them to deal with it effectively.
That said, I can't see the Wallabies, who looked impotent for large periods of the Perth Test, beating the Springboks. I expect the Springboks, playing at a level they are capable of, will be too strong for them. However, the measure of this Springbok side will come at Ellis Park on 4 October against a team they've failed to beat under Meyer's watch.
Even when, on home soil, the Springboks have flirted with their best form, the Blacks have negotiated their challenge with disconcerting ease. The 38-27 victory in Johannesburg last year is testament to that, and the Blacks haven't looked like regressing, which many respected rugby writers predicted they would do. Tellingly, they haven't looked unbeatable either. The Springboks pushed them close in Wellington and privately will feel relatively confident of arresting their losing streak against the world champions.
Some would argue that that confidence may be misplaced, given the number of high quality players – Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Francois Louw and Willem Alberts the most notable of those – missing through injury. If the Springboks are to beat the Blacks it will have to be with a team constituted largely of deputies to first-choice players. Fatigue is also a serious issue, with some of the Springboks' key players having been put through the mincer in Super Rugby, while New Zealand's central contracting system allows coach Steve Hansen to manage his players at their respective franchises.
The immediate focus will, however, be on the clash at Newlands on Saturday. Meyer will be looking for rookie flyhalf Handré Pollard to build on his strong showing against the All Blacks last time out. Pollard appears to have overtaken Morné Steyn in the pecking order, Meyer seemingly making his move with a view to the youngster arriving at next year's World Cup with considerable big-match experience under his belt, and needs a quick return on his investment.
The team's cause will be aided if Schalk Burger hits the ground running and exhibits his extensive Test experience. Ditto for JP Pietersen, who is expected to fill the troublesome outside centre berth over the next two Tests.
Who plugs the void left by Ruan Pienaar will be a point of debate until the team is announced on Wednesday. I wrote last week that I suspect Meyer will entrust that responsibility to Francois Hougaard, who has yet to provide a telling rebuttal to criticism of technical aspects of his game, particularly his tactical kicking. These are defining Tests for him.
Indeed it will be defining Tests for the Springboks as a whole.
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