While not everybody’s cup of tea, the fact remains that next year established Springbok No 8 and known occasional game-breaker Pierre Spies will return to contention for the national team.
The Bulls captain, who went past the 50-cap mark earlier this year, has been sidelined since August after surgery to a fractured finger joint but ought to be back at the helm of his franchise team when they open their 2013 Super Rugby account at home to the Stormers on February 22.
At 27, the notably muscular character has plenty of rugby left in him and the same obviously applies to Ryan Kankowski, the same-aged, strong-running tearaway who is scheduled to return from his faraway Japanese base with Toyota Verblitz to bolster the Sharks once more in the southern hemisphere competition next season.
Video: Springboks’ Tuesday press conference
In their absence, Stormers/WP favourite Duane Vermeulen has had a timely (for him, anyway) extended opportunity to strut his stuff in Bok colours.
But it has been a thoroughly deserved gap for him to try to exploit: previously, wretched luck with pretty major injuries has thwarted his own quests to wear the green and gold despite his Super Rugby and Currie Cup form ahead of those personal mishaps certainly justifying his challenge.
Without Spies and Kankowski to worry about, Vermeulen, the meatiest unit of the three at 116kg, has had five successive starts for his country, beginning with the away Castle Rugby Championship Test against the Wallabies in Perth, where the Boks succumbed 26-19.
At that stage, Vermeulen was seriously undercooked: it was still unsatisfactorily soon after his return to first-class combat following surgery to damaged knee ligaments and initially – and inevitably – he seemed a little off the pace.
But the Nelspruit-born player has gradually clawed his way to greater prominence and productivity for the Boks, to the point that he looks reasonably entrenched in the position; it will be a bit of a surprise if he does not continue in the No 8 shirt against Scotland at Murrayfield.
Bok forward play at present, let’s face it, is close to the least of coach Heyneke Meyer’s worries, and part of that state of affairs is down to an increasingly settled and efficient loose trio comprising the particularly illuminating Francois Louw, plus Willem Alberts and Vermeulen.
But now the last-named player probably has two final opportunities in 2012 – Murrayfield and then the England challenge at Twickenham – to attempt to turn “reasonably entrenched” into “strongly” so before Messrs Spies and Kankowski rejoin the hunt for that jersey.
Vermeulen keeps scoring a solid but not quite sublime six or seven out of 10, if you like, for the Boks: his strengths have been decent physicality, an asset his coach tends to thoroughly approve of, alertness to turnover possibilities, decisive tackling and mauling, and all-round honest work-rate.
Traditionally an excellent lineout option for his Cape franchise, maybe this is an area the Boks could seek to engage him in to a greater extent than they already do, although Eben Etzebeth’s burgeoning strides as a front jumper – both on own and enemy throw – have been one good reason why Vermeulen’s skills in the department have not been too consistently required.
Spies, of course, is an undoubtedly world-class lineout player as well, although it is in some of the aforementioned responsibilities that fall into the “grunt” or “donkeywork” category where Vermeulen is arguably already outshining the more seasoned man from the Highveld, who is often justifiably accused of drifting in and out of high-stakes Test matches.
But where Spies retains a comfortable advantage is for athleticism and explosiveness off the mark: he is far likelier to be a link in either structured attacking plays or counter-attacking rampages from broken play, an area where Vermeulen (whisper it quietly, but especially post-knee injury?) tends to labour a little and cannot be placed in the same league as either Spies or the world’s premier and most rounded No 8 at present, New Zealand’s Kieran Read.
Against the reasonably limited Scots on Saturday, it would be a tonic to Vermeulen’s longer-term aspirations for South Africa if the Boks are able to build a nice head of early steam – something they glaringly failed to do in Dublin! – and then open the game up nicely, a phenomenon some of their long-suffering fans would welcome after the grim-spectacle fightback to pip Ireland.
Under those circumstances, there would be more of an onus, and opportunity, for Vermeulen to add some strings to his international bow by proving he can offer a splash of finesse, peripheral vision and deft off-load skills to accompany his fine industry in the trenches …