By Mark Gleeson
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South Africa, for so long synonymous with an attritional rugby, are looking to an exciting backline to bring a different dimension to their play in the Rugby Championship.
Exhibitions of flair-filled, free-flowing rugby in three June tests have encouraged hopes that South Africa have a strong chance of success in the four-nation competition, starting with the weekend’s opening test at home to Argentina in Johannesburg.
The six tests between now and the beginning of October are also about continuing to build for the Rugby World Cup in 2015 as coach Heyneke Meyer looks to find a settled side he can polish up over the next 24 months.
Backs Bjorn Basson, JJ Engelbrecht, Willie le Roux and Jan Serfontein have been the subject of much excitement and have also come in for hefty praise from Meyer after the impact they had in wins over Italy, Scotland and Samoa two months ago.
They are likely to lead a more flamboyant attacking style as Meyer this week challenged them to “take a step up and show they can do it against the best teams in the world”.
“We have very exciting backs at the moment and when we created scoring opportunities (in June) we finished them,” he told reporters in the build-up to the first international at Soccer City on Saturday.
Le Roux was one of the revelations of Super Rugby with the Cheetahs, where his unpredictable play catapulted him into the national team set up.
Engelbrecht and Serfontein are explosive midfielders while speedy winger Basson has shown a clean pair of heels to many opposing defences.
Any platform for expansive midfield play will come from a dominant pack with the Springboks showing a marked improvement after the disappointment of last year’s Rugby Championship, where they won only two of six matches and were comprehensively beaten at home by New Zealand in their final test.
Meyer says the set piece is a source of pride now with lineouts and scrumaging much improved. Extra work on the new scrum laws formed a large part of this week’s preparations, with a powerful pack still central to the game plan.
“We are a much more settled side and a much better side this year,” he insisted.
Areas of concern, however, remain, as evidenced by the recall of Japan-based scrum half Fourie du Preez, a 62-cap veteran who last played for the Springboks at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
South Africa is also grappling with the exodus of key players to club rugby in England, France and Japan and the potential implications on player availability over the next two years.
A third of the 30-man squad now turn out for overseas clubs, a source of major concern for the South Africa Rugby Union who are to look at ways of curbing the exodus even though stalwarts like Bryan Habana and Morne Steyn are part of the 2015 plans.
“Players playing locally will always get first consideration,” SARU chief executive officer Jurie Roux told reporters last week. “Provided that the selectors have faith in their abilities.
“However we are in a unique situation with six players who were part of the Bok squad last year now deciding to go overseas.
“You can’t just replace so many players in the middle of the season.”