South African rugby fans seem to have drawn the short straw in what the Brits like to refer to as the forthcoming “summer tours” (theirs not ours).
In Australia, the British and Irish Lions will be on tour and in New Zealand there will be a series between the teams who contested the 2011 Rugby World Cup final – the All Blacks and France, Les Tricolores.
And what do we have to look forward to? A gimmicky series involving the Springboks, Italy, Scotland and Samoa – featuring double headers in Durban, Nelspruit and Pretoria – which might result in the Boks not coming up against one of the nations and having to play one of them twice.
In an effort to boost foot traffic through stadium gates, the SA Rugby Union has come up with the concept of two test matches at the same venue on the same day.
So when the quadrangular tournament kicks off at Kings Park in Durban on Saturday, Samoa will go up against Scotland in the curtain-raiser and the Springboks will take on Italy in the main game.
The following Saturday, in a first for the Mbombela Stadium, the Boks will meet Scotland and Samoa will take on Italy.
Instead of each of the countries playing each other once, teams will earn log and bonus points, a la Super Rugby, in the opening two rounds to determine the final fixtures, scheduled to be played at Loftus Versfeld on June 22.
In the finale, Team 4 will play Team 3 before the top two play off for yet another one-off trophy created especially for the occasion.
On the face of it, the intensity likely to be generated by the pride of the UK and Ireland and their red-clad fans in Australia, as well as a proper three-Test series between the All Blacks and France, is likely to be more enticing to fans than South Africa’s watered-down tournament.
But conversely, it might pay off in the long run for Springbok rugby.
Tests against what in truth are lesser opponents will give Heyneke Meyer an ideal opportunity to prepare for
The Rugby Championship by blooding new players to fill the gaps caused by injuries to stalwarts, and also to start putting in place the pieces of a team that can win the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Given the unavoidable scourge of casualties and paucity of time to prepare, Meyer’s first year in charge was not the success he would have hoped for.
But three successive, albeit narrow, victories over Ireland, Scotland and England on the year-end tour moved him out of the red to a 58% win record in his first 12 internationals.
As pragmatic as they come, Meyer understood the need to win tests but also revealed himself to be inherently conservative.
And the forthcoming series will reveal as much about him as the depth of South Africa’s reserves.
Will he be able to strike out boldly and pick players for what they can bring to the collective or will he stay with the safety-first approach that characterised his first season?
Is Meyer wedded to the 4×4 approach or is there room for one or two F1 racers? Will it be bash, batter and boot or will the Boks have the X factor?
Or will the coach look at the dynamic forwards in the Italian line-up, take in the recent resurgence of the Scots and think, “we better not lose to these guys”?
By all means, revel vicariously in the attractions from down under, but do keep an eye on the Boks – the next three weekends are going to be most revealing.
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