World Cup preparation the priority

The result of the Rugby Championship is largely meaningless, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

This Saturday, either the Wallabies or All Blacks will be crowned winners of the southern hemisphere tournament, with the two Australasian foes currently deadlocked on nine log points. The champions will celebrate accordingly in Sydney, and references are sure to be made about the momentum and confidence gained just over a month away from the World Cup.

That’s all fine and well, but ultimately, when the first ball is kicked off at the global event in England on 18 September, everything that's gone before will fade very quickly into the background.

No one will care that the Wallabies and All Blacks both beat the Springboks after scoring late tries on back-to-back weekends in July if they are able to overcome these two old rivals on the way to lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.

Lest we forget, it was Australia who won the 2011 Tri-Nations, and while they did beat the Boks later on in the World Cup – albeit with the help of Bryce Lawrence – they were no match for the All Blacks in their semi-final.

In 2007, the Springboks finished last in the Tri-Nations, winning just a solitary game over Australia in Cape Town, but they would go on to clinch an historic World Cup victory later that year.

At the end of the day, all the sides currently completing their commitments in the shortened Rugby Championship are fully aware that this is a cause serving the greater good. Selections have been mixed and matched, and different tactics employed as these top teams have felt each other out.

Bok coach Heyneke Meyer needed this time to have pressing questions answered, and for the most part he should feel pretty satisfied with the knowledge that's been attained in a short space of time.

Injuries remain the one factor that have detrimentally disrupted Meyer’s World Cup preparations. But the good news is by and large, he should have a fully fit playing squad to choose from at the end of August, while a number of returning players will be available to feature over the next two matches against Argentina.

For most of these individuals, there's plenty to prove. For someone such as Fourie du Preez, it’s a time to prove he still has what it takes to serve as the Springbok scrumhalf general at the World Cup.

Willem Alberts should finally be available again, and the physical flanker simply has to show he still has the form and fitness to be a force at the World Cup.

Pieter-Steph du Toit returns from a second serious knee injury, and has limited time to make a play for the No 5 jersey, which Lood de Jager has impressively set his sights on after replacing the injured Victor Matfield.

Heinrich Brüssow is in line for a long-awaited extended run at openside flank after the injury to Francois Louw, and so it could be a career-defining fortnight for him.

Similary, Pat Lambie should get a start or even two, and the under-utilised utility back will have plenty to prove after watching largely from the bench as Handré Pollard reclaimed the No 10 jersey that the Sharks star wore almost exclusively on the end-of-year tour.

However, it’s sure to be Jean de Villiers’s progress that will be the main talking point over the next two weeks.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how Meyer handles his return. De Villiers could, after all, play at 12 or 13, as could Damian de Allende, while it would be worthwhile seeing how Jesse Kriel performs playing on the outside of a seasoned veteran.

The fact that De Villiers’s position is no longer secure just 46 days away from the World Cup is an indication of just how healthy competition for places is across the board.

Therein lies the value of this Rugby Championship, which has afforded opportunities for new players, some experimentation and another stage to gauge the Springboks’ fitness and conditioning.

Time is limited, but the next two weeks should allow Meyer to extinguish any lingering doubts before the World Cup, and if the side finishes third or fourth on the Rugby Championship table as he does so, well, so be it.

Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

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