Johannesburg (AFP) – South Africa launch their Rugby Championship campaign at home to Argentina Saturday knowing they have not convinced everyone a new chapter has begun following a horror 2016 season.
After a calendar-year record eight defeats in 12 Tests under new coach Allister Coetzee, the 3-0 series whitewash of France two months ago was warmly welcomed.
But while Coetzee spoke of “setting the record straight”, sceptics noted that France were average at best and dismal at worst during the tour.
Were South Africa good or France awful or was it a mix? The answers concerning the Springboks should come during a Rugby Championship that includes New Zealand and Australia.
Argentina at home is, theoretically, the best bet for a South African win in a six-round competition crammed into eight weeks with long westward and eastward flights for all.
After Port Elizabeth this Saturday, the Springboks play Argentina away next weekend, then have a one-week break before tackling Australia and world champions New Zealand on the road.
Another one week break follows before home fixtures against the Wallabies and the All Blacks, who scored 57 points in South Africa last year.
“It is going to be tough,” conceded Coetzee, whose successes over France offered breathing space after incessant social and traditional media calls for his dismissal.
“We have learnt from last year,” he stressed, referring to two victories in six matches, including a lucky win at home to the Argentines.
“Our successes against France were very sweet. It was a good start to the year, but we have not achieved anything yet.
“Argentina are a proud rugby nation with a number of world-class players in their team,” said former provincial scrum-half Coetzee.
He avoided names, but was surely referring to the likes of full-back Joaquin Tuculet, fly-half Nicolas Sanchez, scrum-half Martin Landajo and skipper and hooker Agustin Creevy.
“They have an excellent set piece and strike from first phase — securing turnover ball and launching attacks involving backs and forwards.”
But while South Africa were proving too good for France, Argentina twice lost at home to what was largely an England “C” team before overcoming less intimidating Georgia.
The British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand robbed England of virtually all their first choices and there were injury-induced absentees as well.
The Pumas will certainly be underdogs in Port Elizabeth, but two wins in their last three Rugby Championship matches against the Springboks can only embolden them.
Coach Daniel Hourcade must have noted how France exposed defensive deficiences in Springbok wingers Raymond Rhule and Courtnall Skosan.
Fortunately for the pair, who were capped for the first time against France and have been retained, team-mates repeatedly got them out of trouble.
Fly-half Elton Jantjies can keep a scoreboard operator busy, with unorthodox attacking moves and goal-kicking, when not under undue pressure.
But the All Blacks and New Zealand Super Rugby teams have regularly nullified the threats from the playmaker by keeping him on the back foot.
There was, however, also encouragement for Coetzee in the French series, particularly from lock Franco Mostert and scrum-half Ross Cronje.
Mostert made the team ahead of former South African Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit, and excelled as a lineout winner, ball carrier and fearless tackler.
Cronje likes to keep it simple and possesses an uncanny knack of knowing when to pass and when to kick.
It is unthinkable for South Africa that they will fail to win this weekend, but far more difficult tasks lie ahead in a journey of discovery.