South Africa forwards coach Johan van Graan said on Monday that fears over the match-fitness of the handful of Springboks returning from injury were unfounded ahead of Saturday’s Rugby Championship opener against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld.
Tendai Mtawarira, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Jean de Villiers, Damian de Allende and Pat Lambie are all likely to be involved in Saturday’s Test and all of them have just returned from injuries that have kept them out for weeks and in some cases months.
But Van Graan said players today, especially experienced ones, were more able to hit the ground running.
“It varies from player to player, but they are all professionals who have been around the block. For example, last year Duane Vermeulen had been injured for a long time but he came back and played 80 minutes straight away,” Van Graan said.
Team doctor Craig Roberts acknowledged that players did need to take contact in order to get match-fit, but he said much of this could be done in training.
“You need hits and contact to get match-fit and sometimes you need game time if you’ve been out for a long time. Which is one of the reasons Eben Etzebeth and Frans Malherbe were sent back to their province last week because they had three months out with injury.
“Someone like Beast has only been out for six weeks and he’s done everything in training, he did a lot of scrumming last week and he’s looking good. We had some big, heavy sessions last week,” Roberts said.
Fears that captain De Villiers might miss the opening Rugby Championship encounter now look misplaced as South Africa’s most-capped centre continues to make steady progress from his knee injury.
“We’ve brought Jean through slowly and we’re happy with where he’s at,” Roberts said.
Mtawarira’s progress means that he might well start in the number one jersey in his 56th Test and his first match since the game against Wales in Nelspruit on June 21.
The Springbok pack has been even more disrupted by the injury to veteran Victor Matfield.
“Victor tweaked his knee, there’s a little tear in the cartilage, but he’s responded well to rest and rehab and it doesn’t look like a scope will be necessary. But he won’t be available this week and we’ll reassess his fitness for the trip to Argentina,” Roberts said.
While Van Graan said the absence of “probably the best lock to have ever played” would be felt beyond just the lineouts – Matfield also plays a key role in the defensive organisation – the search was on for someone else to run that set-piece for the Springboks.
“Losing Victor is obviously a huge setback, but we’ve worked hard with Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth on calling the lineouts and Duane Vermeulen has been calling the Stormers’ lineout for some time. He’s been part of the system for a long time and is an experienced caller, so Duane is probably the favourite to do it,” Van Graan said.
The forwards coach said taking on the Argentinians this weekend would be a major test of the Springboks’ ability to hang on to their own ball.
“In 2013, Argentina and us stole the most ball, not only at the breakdowns but also at set-pieces, and we were at one and two again in the June Tests. So it’s definitely going to be a game with a lot of contesting for the ball, Argentina will attack us at every breakdown, scrum, lineout and kick-off.
“The Pumas also do a lot of leg-tackles, taking the ball-carrier low, but playing against Wales and Scotland in June was good preparation for that. They also do more leg-tackles, while you have more double-hits in SuperRugby. But it’s been a focus of ours in training, especially for the taller guys, who are put in situations they’re not used to,” Van Graan said.
There is a good buzz in the Springbok camp, especially with the legendary Juan Smith once again part of the squad, and they are hopeful, despite the injury concerns, that they will be in tiptop shape come Saturday.
“For the first time in two-and-a-half years, we’ve had the actual 30-man squad together two weeks before the start of the tournament and you can feel the buzz and vibe in the squad. Everything’s been planned – the players knew in June what we would be doing now – and we’ve been concentrating on our set-pieces, attack, kicking game and what to do when you’re five metres from your own line and five metres from their line,” Van Graan said.
Even the rusty Malherbe and Etzebeth showed good form in Western Province’s weekend Currie Cup victory over the Eastern Province Kings, with the tighthead prop making over a dozen tackles.