Super Rugby is back this weekend as the South African franchises aim to break their drought of underachievement – with the exception of the admirable Lions – while also balancing the Springboks’ demands in a World Cup year.
It’s rather obvious that most of the players on show will be keen on impressing national coach Rassie Erasmus in order for them to book a ticket to Japan.
Yet there are also men with points to prove for different reasons, such as merely resurrecting careers or actually making sure they finally prove doubters wrong.
Here are five such players for 2019’s campaign.
RUHAN NEL (Stormers)
The irony about the 27-year-old’s rapid rise to the Springbok squad is twofold.
One, the former Blitzboks star seems to have been included in Erasmus’ most recent squads merely to gain experience and become familiar with the team culture.
He hasn’t played a single minute.
And secondly – and possibly more importantly – there’s an argument to be made that Nel hasn’t fully convinced yet that he’s made a successful switch to fifteens.
He owes his relative stardom to his sevens pedigree and a few eye-catching showings at Currie Cup level.
A full Super Rugby campaign should be more revealing.
LUKHANYO AM (Sharks)
As noted previously, the gifted midfielder is potentially the missing piece of the puzzle in the Springboks’ backline.
Am isn’t the bustling, raw centres that Erasmus at times selected in 2018 like Damian de Allende and Andre Esterhuizen.
Instead, the 26-year-old is a more subtle playmaker.
He distributes well, runs good line, tackles effectively and possesses an underrated ability to poach at the breakdown.
But Am needs to show that he has the temperament for the highest level and that can start with a good Super Rugby campaign.
Heaven knows, if he shines, he’s a shoo-in for the Boks.
COENIE OOSTHUIZEN (Sharks)
During Allister Coetzee’s gloomy tenure as Bok coach, the powerful, mobile prop was one of the few highlights.
Oosthuizen was outstanding for the first part of 2017 and experienced a renaissance at international level before a broken arm against the Wallabies stunted his momentum.
Rushed back, he promptly tore two ligaments in his knee in Dublin that sidelined him for ten months.
It was a hammer blow for a man whose shift to tighthead took a substantial amount of time to start bearing fruit.
Oosthuizen’s return in last year’s Currie Cup was just a tad too late to grant him a chance of staking a claim for the year-end tour, but his performances were encouraging.
Now he’ll want to make up for lost time.
HANDRE POLLARD (Bulls)
The Boks’ first-choice pivot has become a valued member of the national team.
Indeed, after two years of injury troubles, Pollard finally played a full season of rugby and, while experiencing some difficult periods, came back stronger.
That will put him in good stead for this season.
However, it’s important to note that Pollard wasn’t asked to be the Boks’ playmaker in 2018.
That responsibility was given to his halfback partner Faf de Klerk.
For Pollard to become a rounded player, he needs to be tasked with pulling the strings.
Given the inexperienced No 9s around him at Loftus, this might be a good place to start.
LIONEL MAPOE (Lions)
The Lions stalwart’s appearance against Argentina in Salta last year said it all.
Brought on as a replacement on the wing, he scored two tries and hardly put a foot wrong in one of the Boks’ poorest performances of the season.
He paid the price for the subsequent outrage.
That’s been the 21-year-old’s fate for years now.
He’s been consistently excellent at Super Rugby level, but an extended run at international level has been rare.
In a World Cup year, with its need for coaches to pick versatile players, Mapoe’s ability at centre and wing could make him an attractive option in Japan.