Boks bouncing back
James Gemmell looks at the new-look South African side that could square up to England in June.
Last Updated: 01/04/12 2:31pm
Like the first buds of spring, English rugby at the highest level is bursting with the promise of what might be this summer.
With Stuart Lancaster now confirmed, there's a newfound confidence and solidity around the Red Rose, born of impressive results and improved performance in the Six Nations.
This showing appears the result of a more positive and aligned team culture, which in itself is more important at this stage than the on-field delivery. But also like the weather in a few monthsʼ time, the fortunes of England in June are far from certain.
As we follow the progress of their South African opposition in Super Rugby, there's growing proof that the Bok fightback is underway.
An ageing team disappointed at the Rugby World Cup, the shortcomings of their coach no longer concealed by the class of his players. De Villiers is gone, so too many of those players who carried South African rugby to the top of the world.
But the concern surrounds those left behind. With such a settled top team for so long, the younger talent that the Boks will now look to either comes from those who have played their Tests under the total control of those departed, or have barely played any Tests at all.
It is hardly an ideal scenario for Heyneke Meyer as he looks to select his first squad of the year, but signs in recent weeks are promising/daunting, depending on your allegiance.
The Stormers have emerged from week five as the only remaining unbeaten side in Super Rugby, and if it weren't for the conference system that dictates the make-up of the table, the Bulls would sit in second place.
Neither would claim they've hit their best yet, and little can be read into the Bullsʼ mauling of the depleted defending champions on the weekend, but the first step to recovery at the national level is confidence at the club level. That is returning as we speak.
And if we cast our eyes across the individuals in form, we see perhaps a couple of examples of the next frontline of Springboks.
Pierre Spies was an imposing force against the Reds. In a loose game that suited his style, the giant number 8 was the dominant figure whenever contact was made. He has, of course, collected plenty of international caps down the years, but this is a player that has not yet reached his potential at the highest level.
In both Super Rugby and in Tests, Spies has played behind some of the best packs in the game, made up of some of the strongest leaders South Africa has produced.
Those dominant figures are no longer there, and the Bullsʼ enforcer has an opportunity to be seen and heard now. The time is perfect for Spies to take a bigger role in Springboks.
For the Stormers, the standout man so far is one of those without any international experience at all.
Eben Etzebeth is fresh out of age-grade rugby, and towers above for the Stormers, both literally and figuratively. This is the sort of player Meyer can look to as the future of his team.
With South Africa looking to rebuild their international standing long term, young talent must be given the chance to experience the demands and intensity of test match rugby; Etzebeth looks well up for it.
If Meyer can empower those with international experience, and give them the chance to lead - players such as Spies - and also take a chance on talent like Etzebeth, then South African rugby will be heading in the right direction again.
The form of the Bulls and the Stormers may help make the decisions for him, and the national coach will be a very interested spectator when these two meet in Cape Town this weekend, without doubt the fixture of week six.
I imagine Staurt Lancaster will be taking a pretty keen interest now as well.