South Africa will be looking to open their Rugby Championship campaign on a positive note when they host Argentina at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
The last time the sides met the Argentines emerged 26-24 victors in the second round of the 2016 Rugby Championship in Salta. The Boks will be desperate to exact their revenge for this defeat and show they are a much-improved outfit from their 2016 annus horribilis.
Much has been made of the Jaguares' poor season in Super Rugby. While it is true that these are the same players who will play for the Pumas, one should expect them to a be much tougher proposition in national colours.
But then again, one cannot ignore the franchise's shortcomings this season when compared to South African franchise the Lions' stellar season. Almost half the Springbok starting XV are Lions (7).
And the Johannesburg-based side had another wonderful season, almost going all the way only to suffer the heartbreak of losing a second successive Super Rugby final.
Will the Lions stars have gotten over their heartache of two weeks ago and be mentally focused on the task at hand? Either way, they are sure to take a great deal more confidence from the preceding season than their Super Rugby counterparts.
The absence of Warren Whiteley gives Eben Etzebeth his third cap as captain but it is important the Stormers enforcer keeps his emotions in check in the face of a notoriously provocative Argentine side.
It is imperative for Alister Coetzee that the Springboks win here as he will know the Rugby Championship is a far more accurate test of his credentials than a three-match series against a weakened French side.
Should his side lose, the knives will be out and the question marks over his decision to leave players like Ruan Combrinck and Frans Steyn out of the squad will loom larger than ever.
Also, one wonders about the decision to start Uzair Cassiem ahead of Jean-Luc Du Preez despite Du Preez having yet to miss a tackle in his international career. He made 28 out of 28 tackles against France during the June Test series, the most of any player to maintain a 100 percent success rate.
Facundo Isa will be sorely missed as his big-money move to Toulon has taken him out of the Argentina reckoning for a while. The dynamic loose forward made 85 carries in last year's edition of the Rugby Championship, 15 more than any other player, while he gained the most metres of any forward (361).
Meanwhile, Argentina enjoyed the most time in possession of any team in the Rugby Championship 2016 (17m 12s per game), as well as boasting the best ruck success rate (96 percent) of any of the four nations.
Therefore, despite the Jaguares' below-par Super Rugby, the Pumas should not be underestimated.
Players to watch:
For South Africa: Keep an eye on lock Franco Mostert. Mostert is the undisputed king of the lineout, stealing 17 lineouts so far this season, nine more than any other player in Super Rugby. He is a workaholic in general play, too, chipping in with more than his fair share of tackles, carries and ruck cleanouts.
For Argentina: The Boks must be mindful of not giving needless penalties away as they will surely be punished by the accurate boot of Nicolas Sanchez. Sanchez was successful with 20 of 23 attempts at goal in The Rugby Championship 2016, giving him the best goal success rate (87 percent) of any player to have made more than three attempts.
Head-to-head: Guido Petti versus Eben Etzebeth should be a titanic battle in the number four position. Petti was named ahead of Etzebeth in the 2017 SANZAAR Super Rugby team of the year but despite this Etzebeth is still regarded as the best in the world in his position. Just two locks beat more defenders than Petti (19) in Super Rugby this season and conceded just six turnovers this season, the joint fewest of any lock to play 800+ minutes in Super Rugby. He is big, abrasive, surprisingly fast and a proven try-scoring threat. Meanwhile, Etzebeth, IRB World Player of the Year nominee for 2013, is the ultimate enforcer and will captain the Springboks on Saturday.
Team news: Uzair Cassiem will start at number eight for the Springboks in their opening match of the Rugby Championship, against Argentina on Saturday.
The Cheetahs loose forward comes into the starting line-up for only his second Test after he made his international debut in November 2016 against Wales in Cardiff, with Jean-Luc du Preez moving to the bench.
The other change in the pack that started the third Test against France in Johannesburg in June, sees the inclusion of experienced tighthead prop Coenie Oosthuizen in place of Ruan Dreyer.
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee made only one change to the backline, with scrum-half Ross Cronje resuming the number nine duties from Francois Hougaard.
Hougaard and Du Preez are joined on the bench by experienced prop Trevor Nyakane, as well as Curwin Bosch, the promising young Sharks and Junior Springbok fly-half, who will make his Springbok debut should he run onto the field on Saturday.
“Uzair is a very versatile loose forward and the added advantage is that he is also an excellent option in the lineout,” explained Coetzee.
“Coenie has played consistently well this season for the Cell C Sharks and he performed well for us whenever he came off the bench in the French series, while Trevor has worked extremely hard and deserves his opportunity.”
Coetzee said that Bosch had slotted well into the Springbok environment during his stay of almost two weeks with the squad in Port Elizabeth. The youngster also attended the Boks’ pre-season training camp in April.
“Curwin is a young player with huge potential and a bright future ahead of him,” said Coetzee.
“He showed in the very tough Vodacom Super Rugby competition that he is a skilful player and a prolific goal kicker and he covers both full-back and fly-half.
“He can be very proud of his inclusion in the match day squad as he matriculated from Grey Port Elizabeth just two years ago.”
According to the Springbok coach, the Boks are well prepared for the opening fixture against the Pumas: “We are pleased with our preparations and we expect another huge contest from Argentina, a very proud rugby nation.
“They are excellent in their set pieces, and have a number of world class players in this team. Their biggest threat is that they strike from first phase, hard at the breakdown, looking to turn ball over and get into general attack,” explained Coetzee.
Experienced Springbok Tendai Mtawarira is set to play in a record 30th consecutive Rugby Championship match, surpassing the record held by wing Bryan Habana. “Beast” will also extend his record as the most-capped Springbok prop to 91 Tests.
Saturday’s fixture at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is match number 100 for South Africa in the Rugby Championship since the inaugural Tri-Nations match against Australia on 13 July, 1996. The match is also the tenth meeting between the Springboks and the Pumas since the Argentinians joined the competition in 2012.
The Springboks are unbeaten at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, with three wins and a draw dating back to 2011 at the state-of-the-art venue.
Meanwhile, Three changes have been made from the Argentina line-up that beat Georgia in June as Emiliano Boffelli comes in for Matias Moroni on the wing, Tomas Lavanini replaces Matias Alemanno at lock while Pablo Matera gets in ahead of Rodrigo Baez on the blindside flank for the away fixture.
Argentina narrowly lost this match in 2016 and will be desperate to start the campaign on a positive note before the reverse game next week.
2016: Argentina won 26-24 in Salta
2016: South Africa won 30-23 in Nelspruit
2015: South Africa won 24-13 in London
2015: South Africa won 26-12 in Buenos Aires
2015: Argentina won 37-25 in Durban
2014: South Africa won 33-31 in Salta
2014: South Africa won 13-6 in Pretoria
2013: South Africa won 22-17 in Mendoza
2013: South Africa won 73-13 in Soweto
2012: South Africa and Argentina drew 16-16 in Mendoza
2012: South Africa won 27-6 in Cape Town
Prediction: We expect South Africa to be a much tougher proposition this year and emerge victorious, especially in Port Elizabeth where they have such a good record. South Africa by 15.
South Africa: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 Jaco Kriel, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth (c), 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jean-Luc du Preez, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Curwin Bosch, 23 Damian de Allende
Argentina: 15 Joaquin Tuculet, 14 Ramiro Moyano, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Emiliano Boffelli, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Martin Landajo, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Tomas Lezana, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Enrique Pieretto, 2 Agustin Creevy (c), 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro
Replacements: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Lucas Noguera, 18 Ramiro Herrera, 19 Marcos Kremer, 20 Javier Ortega Desio, 21 Tomas Cubelli, 22 Juan Martin Hernandez, 23 Matias Moroni
Date: Saturday, August 19
Venue: Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Kick-off: 17:05 local (15:05 GMT)
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Nic Berry (Australia)
Television match official: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)