Springbok captain Eben Etzebeth says the team’s end-of-year tour will determine the success of their season. It is a season in which they have improved, yielding five wins‚ two defeats and two draws.
The straight-talking lock was unambiguous on Thursday about the team’s objectives.
"We are looking for four wins‚" he said about the upcoming Tests against Ireland‚ France‚ Italy and Wales.
In 2016 the Springboks suffered their first home defeat against Ireland before winning the series 2-1. Etzebeth believes the Boks are now a lot better prepared for the Irish.
"When we played Ireland last year we had been together for only three‚ four weeks. Now we’ve been together for almost two years. We are very prepared," he said.
"The guys know each other better. We are a more gelled unit this time."
Since Allister Coetzee took over the coaching reins the Boks have recorded only one away victory, against Argentina in 2017. Etzebeth is aware of that.
"We need to start winning away as a group. This time we play them at the start of their season. Ireland will be difficult‚" he acknowledged.
Apart from being more familiar with each other, the Springboks are physically in much better shape than they were a year ago.
Confidence then was low and muscles were aching.
"I am so pleased with the conditioning‚" said Coetzee. "Last year at the same time only two players could pass a fitness test. This time the whole squad is in good condition and in peak shape."
Injury‚ however‚ remains a constant threat and he was asked about the possible involvement of back-rower Duane Vermeulen should the Boks suffer more orthopaedic upheaval.
Vermeulen has only just returned to the field for his club Toulon after an injury.
"It is not just going to be easy to come from club rugby and step in seamlessly.
"Obviously we are talking about Test match rugby and our players in training are covering between 5km to 8km per training session.. Well over 100m per minute. I don’t know how rugby-ready he is. Our medical team is on top of that."
As an example of his squad’s power and aerobic ability, Coetzee described his forwards as "mobile" and "physical’’.
Etzebeth, who has just returned from an ankle injury‚ embodies those characteristics when at full tilt.
"I’m feeling much better. I did some running. I will be joining the team on Saturday for warm-up and will be taking part in about 50% of the training session," he said.
"When we get to Ireland on Monday maybe I will be training fully with the team."
Coetzee reported a clean bill of health for the rest of the squad. "[Fullback] Andries Coetzee is back. He had a bit of tonsillitis. [Prop] Coenie [Oosthuizen] is raring to go."
Inevitably the Bok coach has to restore confidence in some areas during an end-of-year tour‚ following the disappointment for some players in the Currie Cup final. Asked if he was concerned about Sharks utility back Curwin Bosch’s tackling‚ Coetzee counterpunched.
"No‚ no‚ no. It really isn’t a concern for me. Every player has shortcomings.
"A lot of players in the final missed tackles. I don’t say every player is bulletproof; there are things they need to work on.
"I don’t want to come up for Curwin, but show me flyhalves that take the skin off the opposition. He’s a young guy‚ he’s 20 years old. He will develop and he will get confidence. When he kicks the ball there is something special about him.
"Instead of just focusing on the weakness I would like want him to concentrate on his strengths."