South Africa: Full Report Card for Every Position Entering Rugby Championship
Heyneke Meyer's South Africa side come into this year's Rugby Championship with revitalised hopes of going that extra mile and winning the trophy they so nearly missed out on in 2013.
In the end, New Zealand were rampant victors en route to claiming last year's title, but a last-gasp encounter at Ellis Park could have turned everything around.
The Springboks are once again building up to stage a challenge for the Rugby World Cup in just over a year's time, and we've graded their Rugby Championship squad heading into this summer's contest.
Past accolades, current form and future potential all lend their hand in determining a player's rating, and national-team experience also plays a role in the assessment.
Jannie du Plessis
The Sharks are well represented in the South African front row, and Jannie du Plessis should once again take centre stage as Meyer's starting tighthead this summer.
The Natal outfit built a great foundation of their 2014 season around the scrum, and combining size with a sound technical mind at the set piece is a rare combination that the qualified doctor has in his arsenal.
The elder of the Du Plessis brothers' only shortcoming may be a tendency to not make considerable yardage in the loose, but he's a reliable asset in securing metres around the fringes nonetheless.
The second component of that all-Sharks front three is Tendai Mtawarira, whose reputation as "The Beast" remains as glittering as ever.
Like the aforementioned Du Plessis, Mtawarira brings a 50-plus haul of caps into this Rugby Championship (55), and at 29 years of age his tally is only set to soar further before next year's Rugby World Cup.
Providing an athletic launching platform from the loose side of the scrum, the 29-year-old was unfortnunate not to play a stronger role in the Sharks' post-season fixtures through injury but will be a rejuvenated figure in time for this summer's internationals.
By some margin the youngest prop selected for Rugby Championship duty this summer, Frans Malherbe will continue his development as a Springbok as Meyer looks to root out the next generation.
The Tests faced last autumn against Wales and Scotland provided some barometer of the 23-year-old tighthead's strength, but this summer's examinations will be of an altogether higher standard.
In an otherwise gloomy season for the Stormers, Malherbe held a fine account of himself, but his validity as a South African alternative to Du Plessis is still up for debate.
Trevor Nyakane is yet to gain a start under Meyer, but in the four internationals he has appeared, he's always been on the winning side.
The 25-year-old will be one of two Cheetahs joining the Bulls for the 2015 Super Rugby season, as confirmed by Planet Rugby last month:
One could certainly argue Nyakane has improved further since debuting for the national team in 2013, but he still possesses some qualities of an outdated prop model, with Meyer noting his need to improve discipline on and off the pitch.
At 33, there aren't many figures within the Springboks squad more experienced than Gurthro Steenkamp, and Meyer has once again chosen to use that seasoned mind to his advantage.
The loosehead claimed his 50th cap for the side earlier this year, and while his legs may not have the mobility of years gone by, Steenkamp brings a reliable asset in the rotation and one not unfamiliar with the Southern Hemisphere giants.
This summer's competition will be a memorable return to major international competition for Schalk Brits, whose Saracens loyalties have played a factor in his lack of involvement in recent years.
Since moving to England, the hooker has gone from strength to strength, however, and while one can debate his quality as a specialist in his position, there aren't many more athletic bastions of the No. 2 jersey.
Bismarck du Plessis
Standing in Brits' way of a starting place is a rather sizeable figure, however, with Bismarck du Plessis certain to hold down his place as Meyer's go-to man in the front row.
Last year's Rugby Championship was marred by the unjust red card Du Plessis picked up against New Zealand, and he'll be eager to right those wrongs this time around.
The younger of the Du Plessis siblings is among the very elite of the world's hookers, a modern testament to the blend of athleticism, set-piece efficiency and defensive nous that many could look to replicate.
As aforementioned, Adriaan Strauss and former Cheetahs teammate Nyakane will be heading to Pretoria for the 2015 Super Rugby season, a move that's been earned by all rights.
Though his substantial frame may not suggest it, the hooker boasts a hidden agility with ball in hand and has for some time now been a useful backup to Du Plessis in the international ranks.
Meyer will be ecstatic to have a player of Eben Etzebeth's quality under his command, and the only thing more exciting than his current talent is the fact that his professional career is still in a budding stage.
Aged 22, the 6'9" monolith stands an incredible prospect at lock and already has 23 caps to his name since debuting for the Springboks two years ago.
Having been released from the Springboks in order to gain match fitness in the Currie Cup, Etzebeth's health and fitness with Western Province will be one of Meyer's chief concerns.
Victor Matfield (Injury Doubt)
It's already been announced by Sky Sports that Victor Matfield will be unavailable for South Africa's opener against Argentina, flanker Juan Smith called up as a temporary replacement.
Old though the war horse may be, Matfield has proved in his 2014 Super Rugby campaign just what a giant of the game he still is, figuratively and literally.
His presence in the pack will be invaluable, and although barnstorming runs will be set to a lower frequency, line-out provisions are still at an optimum.
Another veteran of the South African lock scene, Bakkies Botha could be playing in his last major international tournament this summer, the 34-year-old growing wearier as the seasons roll on.
At Toulon, the Springbok gladiator has shown that there most certainly is life in his ripened legs just yet, though, and his ferocity in the loose remains as potent as ever, his technical mind having lost none of its strength, either.
Lood de Jager
Murmurs suggest that Lood de Jager will be the one filling Matfield's boots against Argentina, and this fixture would be a valuable settling-in fixture for the 21-year-old.
The second-youngest player in the squad has only three caps to his name, but like Etzebeth, he has the potential to form a part of the side's next great lock partnership for the years to come.
In those three Springbok outings, De Jager has managed to score two tries, using his near-20-stone frame to huge advantage in the loose and displaying a knack to get down low well, despite his towering height.
South Africa have a thriving horde of options on their flanks, but among the cream of the crop sits Willem Alberts, whom Meyer has shown to be among his favourite options since taking the team's helm.
Regardless of where he plays in the loose forward positions, the 120-kilogram mass of Sharks force gets a job done with specific instructions: hit and run.
His handling may not be on the same level as other back-row bastions of the world's elite, and one can debate his worth at blindside, but as a player, Alberts is a terror for opponent defences to deal with.
Called up as cover for the injured Matfield, Juan Smith will get the chance to once again prove his mettle as a Springbok this summer, providing he can squeak his way in front of those other flank stars in the squad.
The 33-year-old has proved to be a talismanic presence at Toulon, particularly in their late run to a domestic and European double this year, but the Rugby Championship will be a more intense test of how well he's recovered from injury.
If Alberts is a sign of the Sharks' back-row talent slowly migrating out of the national team, Marcell Coetzee is very much a sign of the good things to come from Natal contributions.
The 2014 campaign was something of a coming of age for the 23-year-old, who doesn't allow a lack of experience to prevent him from competing against the best of the Southern Hemisphere.
At the breakdown, Coetzee regularly makes a nuisance of himself in disrupting enemy retention, but he also has a scoring streak to his name, particularly dangerous in the close quarters.
Coming all the way from England's West Country is a journey that Francois Louw will be accustomed to, but this summer won't be nearly as disrupted as the Bath man has grown used to.
South Africans will be hoping that smoother journey will benefit a player whom some are backing to captain the squad during their Rugby Championship opener against the Argentinians, a sign of his lead-by-example nature.
The blindside has shown on the club level this past Premiership season that his workhorse attitude is as strong as ever, and he sits among Meyer's most useful terriers in wresting possession from the enemy.
Making his debut under Meyer in late June, Oupa Mohoje's worth as an international player is still under scrutiny, especially considering that debut came after just seven games in Super Rugby.
Meyer evidently sees something promising in the 24-year-old, who has made his way to the top through less conventional means but is nonetheless grasping his chances as they come.
All that being said, the blindside has the potential to be monstrous for the national team, but potential is all it is at present, yet to truly prove himself along the same lines of some team-mates.
The only specialist No. 8 named in Meyer's squad is of a size that could account for several slots on its own, with Duane Vermeulen handed a heavy burden as Meyer's Mr. Reliable once again.
Aggressive, determined and as eager to gain revenge over New Zealand as any other in the Springboks' squad, the Stormers brawler is more than capable of shouldering that burden, however.
The man they call "Thor" has no problems to ponder on the physical side of things, but Vermeulen also houses a sound mind at the line-out and is well capable of marshalling his pack when a more clinical voice is needed.
Scrum-half is a position of some contention for South Africa and has been for some time, but with Fourie du Preez out with injury, Francois Hougaard can look to lay down a marker.
A forgettable season with the Bulls nevertheless showed the busy No. 9 to have that leadership quality that's often so crucial for one in his position, probing the opposition with many runs of his own ingenuity.
Hougaard's promotion of fast ball wasn't always met with a team response of the same speed at Loftus Versfeld, but his playmaking may be put to better use in Springbok surroundings.
Kicking ability continues to pitch Ruan Pienaar above some of his scrum-half peers, but the question is whether or not such a presence will be required when Meyer's fly-halves are so accomplished in that sense.
It will likely come down to a question of tactics for the South African helmsman, Ulster-based Pienaar representing a safe, albeit not dazzling solution.
With six Super Rugby tries to his name in 2014, Cobus Reinach is receiving his first taste of Springboks experience this summer, and it's a fully deserved reward for the spritely 24-year-old.
One of only two uncapped players in the squad, Reinach's trend of flash-in-the-pan magic will be put to the test on a bigger scale this summer, and with chances difficult to come by, he'll need to seize any that come his way.
The nature of Reinach's play means that one either gets the sizzling maestro or something more disappointing, but it will be of some interest to see how he fares with a structure that's not so specifically catered as it would be under Jake White.
Once upon a time, Pat Lambie may well have received a higher grade for his talents, but having only just made a return from serious injury, we're yet to see if he's the same player that left the field at the start of the year.
At his best, the 23-year-old is a revelation, but the Crusaders showed in their Super Rugby semi-final with the Sharks that his game can very much be shut down with the right tactics.
Lambie's kicking in particular was sub-standard en route to that loss in Christchurch, the youngster facing a fight to regain and cement any starting spot in the national-team spectrum.
The baby of the squad is like a child walking among men as far as numbers can tell, but the growing body of Handre Pollard houses a mind of puppeteer-like wisdom.
Still rough around the edges in many ways, the 20-year-old has a potential to be South Africa's starting No. 10 for years to come, and speculation dictates Pollard could start against Argentina.
He showed against Scotland during the mid-year Tests that he's far above such insufficient challenges, but Pollard's playmaking and an incredibly talented pair of feet may well be able to stand up against the world's international forces already.
In a group of varied and assorted fly-halves, Morne Steyn is the tried-and-tested route, the man whom Meyer knows can get his side past the finish line, but could he guarantee first place?
And that's the dilemma for the Springboks coach, who will know full well that while Steyn is one of the most reliable presences in the world when standing over a tee, he may not be the marvel needed to push his team onto that next plane of quality.
The Stade Francais star brings a set play of strict rules to the fore, where you very much know what you'll get through his presence, but he is a master of his trade all the same.
Jean de Villiers
Jean de Villiers is something of an injury doubt for Meyer at present, having only recently made the return to training after missing the last two months of the Stormers' campaign.
Centre is something of a concern for South Africa, too, and the captain's presence is as pivotal as it's ever been at present, Meyer not exactly brimming with confidence in his options.
However, De Villiers himself remains among the globe's finest, an ever-reliable option, capable in the inside or outside channel and one guaranteed to always give his every ounce for the national jersey.
He proved during last year's Rugby Championship surge that he's still got what it takes to worry the likes of New Zealand on his day.
With JJ Engelbrecht and Jaque Fourie out of the picture, Jan Serfontein has a heavy cross to bear in giving South Africa stability in their midfield, especially considering the options Australia and the All Blacks each boast.
The 21-year-old only received his first Test start earlier this summer, and despite impressing for the Bulls, his stopping power may not quite be of the sufficient standard.
It remains to be seen what combination of inside and outside centre Meyer is planning on using, but should it indeed be the No. 12 jersey that Serfontein takes, he won't be forgiven for a lack of spearhead initiative or defensive lapses.
Damian de Allende
Alongside Reinach, Damian de Allende is the other option Meyer has to come into his centre setup, and the Stormers youngster could be an asset in either of the midfield roles.
Meyer may well be looking to Serfontein or De Allende to step up and become his next champion of the position for the years to come with next year's Rugby World Cup firmly in sight.
De Allende outscored Serfontein four tries to three in the 2014 Super Rugby season, showing there's not much between the two as finishers, but the imposing build of De Allende may be the one lined up against Argentina, looking to replicate recent line-breaking form.
Meyer is blessed with pace in excess out on his wings, but Lwazi Mvovo's value as a technical maestro isn't exactly on par with his physical assets.
When assessing these players, it's inevitable that the likes of Mvovo be compared with those they're set to battle, and when sizing the Sharks man up against the likes of Julian Savea and Henry Speight, his shortcomings become more clear.
Allow him space and there's no catching the speedster, up there with the fastest in the sport, but Mvovo can be beaten by those more imposing threats in his position.
And that's where Bryan Habana subverts the stereotype of great attackers not always making for great defenders, often surprising with what his smaller frame can accomplish in the close quarters.
The winger is still disappointed after not being able to play his desired role in South Africa's Sevens triumph at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but what better way to get rid of that misery than with Rugby Championship victory?
Since moving to Toulon, Habana has very much retained his place among the world's finest on the flank, and any demons that came as a result of his early injury in last year's crunch encounter against New Zealand will be hunted away with a 2014 charge.
Where Habana missed out, though, Cornal Hendricks was able to fill in and the Cheetahs winger actually was a part of that Commonwealth win in Glasgow.
The Sevens tournament will have put the winger in a good state of match fitness in time for the Rugby Championship, and after notching six tries in his maiden Super Rugby campaign, 2014 could get even better for the budding star.
Willie Le Roux
The argument is there to highlight Willie Le Roux as the best, or at least most in-form fullback in the world at present, whether it's playing for the Cheetahs or the Springboks.
The 24-year-old has mastered the art of kicking at pace to open up space in behind the opposition's back line, and it's a trick that so far no team has shown the ability to restrain on a consistent basis.
Kicking to Le Roux and allowing him time on the ball from downfield has been akin to suicide for teams of late, his feet possessing a most miraculously deft touch, not to mention a precise pair of hands to go along with them.
The dazzling dynamo has the potential to make up for any deficiencies Meyer has in his centres at present, with the likes of Israel Folau and Israel Dagg set to receive a renewed test from Le Roux in seeing who's the finest No. 15.
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