He's back! Former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie returns to Planet Rugby as our exclusive guest columnist for the duration of the Rugby Championship.
Visagie earned 29 caps for his country and was the cornerstone of the Springbok team that reached the 1999 World Cup semi-finals. He earned the nickname "Drieman", or three man, because he played number 3 and scrummed like three men. He won four Currie Cups with Western Province and earned 43 Super 12 caps with the Stormers.
In 2003 Visagie moved to London to join Saracens for whom he played in 121 games and was voted in the Premiership Team of the Season for three consecutive years.
Let the Championship begin!
After 16 years of monotonous travelling between South Africa and Australasia for the first half of every rugby year, the players and supporters of the Southern Hemisphere rugby giants are champing at the bit to have a bit of diversity thrown into the mix with the long overdue inclusion of Argentina.
The players will have mixed feelings, because the rugby calendar for the most successful teams and players has just become even more congested, which is unlikely to lead to extended spells of high performance by the players from week to week in the consecutive competitions. It is impossible and completely ridiculous to expect a player to perform at his peak for nine months on the trot.
At least the forwards have got some of the best cuts of meat on the globe to look forward to in Argentina and the flash boys in the backs know that the South American brunettes are something special to look forward to on a Saturday night out on the town in Buenos Aires.
In my view the outcome of the Championship is very predictable on recent form: the All Blacks are the clear favourites.
Heyneke Meyer's conservative and pragmatic approach will ensure that the Boks will not receive the kind of drubbings they have in the away legs of some Tri-Nations campaigns in the past. I personally have the highest regard for Heyneke as a person and a coach and I can credit him as the only coach that has ever made a technical contribution to my scrumming style and understanding as a player. He has the gift to motivate players on a personal level and to ensure team cohesion.
There is no doubt that South Africa's power game that is built around dominant 1st phase possession, field position, accurate field kicks with an aggressive chase and complimented with offensive defence can be very effective and unstoppable when it is executed well. However when your key enforcers and executors are injured, retired or out of form, it can quickly turn into a spectacle that rather resembles banging your head against a brick wall for 80 minutes. The weakness of the Bulls-styled rugby has been that there is no plan B and that they were terribly predictable. It was clear that even the inexperienced England side was able to get to grips with the predictable nature of the power game.
Once you have neutralised the Boks up front and put some pressure on the halfbacks, you have the game won. But to be truly honest, South Africa don't have any other option with the type of players in their squad and to compound the problem even more, Francois Hougaard and Morne Steyn's tactical kicking has been way off the international standards required to ensure the success of the game plan. Ruan Pienaar is definitely the in-form 9 and best suited to take the pressure off Steyn in both tactical kicking, as well as kicking for goal. Hougaard's natural skills, speed and unpredictability is however a must for a Bok backline that already lacks flair and struggles to score tries.
Whilst there is significant depth in certain positions for the Boks, they are very thin on true international performers in a number of areas. Jannie du Plessis remains the only international standard tighthead prop in South Africa, although there are real question marks about his defence in broken play. The inclusion of Pat Cilliers is definitely a move in the right direction, because the two Bulls props clearly do not have the savvy to operate at international level, and especially not against the Franks brothers.
The Boks will also rue the absence of the likes of Schalk Burger and Juan Smith, who are both world class. The bottom line is that the valuable right shoulders that the Bok scrum is producing are not turned into any form of competitive advantage.
A valid question is also why the SA Super Rugby franchises have struggled so much with injuries compared to the teams Down Under. I believe the player management has been na´ve and compromised in South Africa and if the trend continues the ramifications will become even more severe as this gruelling campaign stretches over three months.
A major concern is whether the Nik Naks man (as one of my former team-mates would call Zane Kirchner) will be considered at full-back. He is a dependable provincial full-back, but it has been clear that the Test arena is a cut above his ability and most importantly his speed is limited compared to the Wallaby and Kiwi flyers. It is also at the expense of one of the brightest prospects in South Africa, namely Pat Lambie. One of the main reasons for the success of the 2007 Springbok side - which played to a very similar game plan - was the fact that Percy Montgomery was absolutely bullet proof at full-back and no one dared kick on him, because he would also return it with interest and therefore severely limited the playing options for the opposition.
This brings me to one of only two possible areas where the All Blacks are vulnerable. For years now the AB's have had a mediocre line-out. Since 2003 South Africa has been the most successful team against them (France also needs a mention here and again they built their victories largely around line-out possession and field position). Both South Africa, and Australia this coming weekend, should play field position and kick the ball out if possible and challenge the Kiwi line-out as many times as possible. To kick possession down the throats of the All Black backline is like feeding a monster in your backyard.
Although the odds are stacked in favour of the Wallabies, with two of the three Bledisloe Cup Tests to be played in Australia, including the important opening clash in Sydney this weekend, they have lost 12 of the last 15 clashes against the All Blacks. Since the All Blacks took back the Bledisloe Cup in 2003, they have never really come close to losing it and only twice since then have the Wallabies won the first Test of each year's series. If their backs get the ball the dangerous Will Genia and Quade Cooper can run havoc with Kurtley Beale at the back. The problem is they will never see the ball as their forwards will be pulverized and will be taking aerial photographs at scrum time. I would however prefer Berrick Barnes at fly-half if they would like to control the game in any shape or form against the Kiwis.
The Boks also have a very favourable draw by starting at home against the Pumas and then playing away against the newcomers. The first year and first away games in the Championship will be a very steep learning curve for the Pumas to play against quality opposition for so many consecutive weeks, but I believe they will at least give a good account of themselves in the set pieces and they will develop over time to be very difficult to beat on home soil.
Sadly I have to say that another major factor that will determine the success of the teams and the quality of the spectacle will be the way the referees will adjudicate the tackle situation. The All Blacks are the clear favourites and enter their first tournament as world champions and the new coaching team will want to showcase their new style and ethos, but they can also come unstuck if the referees start to address their serial offenses at ruck time including obstruction and going off their feet beyond the ball.
South Africa can also possibly dominate opposition with their driving maul, but again it will require a referee with real understanding to keep the opposition honest and on side to achieve the true benefit of such a tactic.
This weekend I predict an away win for the All Blacks and home win for the Boks - let the Championship begin!
Follow Cobus on Twitter: @Drieman3