Boks 'vulnerable' on the road?
YEAR-END TOUR: South African rugby is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons - the contentious 2023 World Cup bid.
Amongst all the theatrics, the Springboks are preparing for a tour of Europe in the knowledge they have only once won on the road since Allister Coetzee took over as head coach in 2016.
Coetzee admitted South Africa face four "hellish challenges" on a tour that will decide whether this season is a success or failure - a few shared by captain Eben Etzebeth.
The twice world champion Springboks tackle Ireland in Dublin this Saturday, followed by France in Paris, Italy in Padova and Wales in Cardiff on consecutive weekends.
Ireland have won four of the last six home Tests against South Africa, France four of the last five, Italy the last, and Wales the last two, leaving the tourists extremely wary.
Last year, South Africa fell to England, Italy and Wales to finish 2016 with a calendar-year record eight defeats, triggering media and public calls for Coetzee to be axed.
The 54-year-old former coach of Cape Town-based Super Rugby outfit Stormers survived a disastrous first year in charge to achieve better results this year.
South Africa arrived in Europe at the weekend after five wins, two draws and two losses, but many still question whether Coetzee is the right man for the job.
He will probably need at least three victories on tour to silence his critics, and dare not fail for a second successive time against European minnows Italy.
Lock Etzebeth, passed fit after injuring an ankle in training two weeks ago, said the success or failure of our season hinges on what happens in Europe.
"We are looking at four wins," the captain said.
"When the Springboks played in Europe last year we had not been together for long. Now we have been together for almost two years and are very prepared.
"We need to start winning away as a group," he said, referring to only one victory on the road in nine attempts since Coetzee succeeded Heyneke Meyer.
Coetzee admitted that the Tests would be "hellish challenges as we have not performed well in Ireland, France and Wales of late and everyone knows what Italy did to us last year.
"Playing in Europe means different weather, different styles of play and different interpretations of the breakdown laws by referees.
"Our opponents are likely to be very good at tactical kicking and challenging for the ball in the air.
"We need to start winning close matches, too, having failed to do so three times this year against New Zealand and Australia."
South Africa recovered from a 57-0 mauling by world champions New Zealand in Auckland to lose 25-24 in a Cape Town Test they could have won.
The same applied to two draws against Australia - 23-all in Perth and 27-all in Bloemfontein - with the Springboks finishing both on the offensive.
Earlier, South Africa achieved a 3-0 whitewash of tired, weakened France and triumphed home and away against Argentina, who have slipped since coming fourth at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The general view of the South African media ahead of the European tour is that the pack should hold its own, but the backline lacks the x-factor that could decide a tight tussle.
Tighthead prop Wilco Louw was the find of the domestic season and the only concern is the lack of a specialist and experienced number eight with skipper Warren Whiteley injured.
Jan Serfontein was omitted as he wanted to settle at new team Montpellier so Test-rusty Damian de Allende is the lone recognised inside centre among 15 backs.
There have also been media hints of a change at fly-half with fit-again Handré Pollard possibly replacing talented but erratic Elton Jantjies.
Five facts about the South African squad:
* Zimbabwe-born loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira is the most capped of the 34 tourists with 95 caps, 32 less than Springbok record-holder and retired lock Victor Matfield.
* There are five uncapped players in the squad - fullback Warrick Gelant, centre Lukhanyo Am, scrum-half Louis Schreuder, lock Ruan Botha and number eight Daniel du Preez.
* Flyhalf Elton Jantjies is the leading Springbok points scorer among the touring party with 198, comprising two tries, 37 conversions and 38 penalties.
* National champions Western Province supply nine of the squad, including Ghana-born winger Raymond Rhule, who joined the Cape Town outfit from Free State Cheetahs this month.
* Francois Louw from English Premiership club Bath may be a loose forward, but he is also the leading Springbok try scorer among the tourists with eight.
Factfile for South Africa tour of Europe
Forwards: Eben Etzebeth (captain), Steven Kitshoff, Siya Kolisi, Wilco Louw, Mbongeni Mbonambi, Pieter-Steph du Toit (all Western Province), Ruan Botha, Tendai Mtawarira, Coenraad Oosthuizen, Daniel du Preez, Chiliboy Ralepelle (all Sharks), Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx, Franco Mostert (all Golden Lions), Uzair Cassiem, Teboho Mohoje (both Free State Cheetahs), Lodewyk de Jager, Trevor Nyakane (both Blue Bulls), Francois Louw (Bath).
Backs: Andries Coetzee, Ross Cronje, Elton Jantjies, Courtnall Skosan (all Lions), Warrick Gelant, Jesse Kriel, Rudy Paige, Handré Pollard (all Bulls), Damian de Allende, Dillyn Leyds, Raymond Rhule (all Province), Lukhanyo Am, Curwin Bosch, Louis Schreuder (all Sharks), Francois Venter (Cheetahs)
Coach: Allister Coetzee (South Africa)
ITINERARY (times GMT)
November 11: Ireland, Dublin (17.30)
November 18: France, Paris (19.45)
November 25: Italy, Padova (14.00)
December 2: Wales, Cardiff (14.30)
P15 W9 D1 L5 scored 246 points, conceded 197
Record win: South Africa 38-0 (Dublin, 1912)
Record loss: South Africa 15-32 (Dublin, 2006)
P18 W12 D1 L5 scored 345, conceded 256
Record win: South Africa 52-10 (Paris, 1997)
Record loss: South Africa 10-30 (Marseille, 2002)
P6 W5 D0 L1 scored 228, conceded 114
Record win: South Africa 62-31 (Bologna, 1997)
Record loss: South Africa 18-20 (Florence, 2016)
P19 W15 D1 L3 scored 367, conceded 275
Record win: South Africa 34-12 (Cardiff, 2007)
Record loss: South Africa 13-27 (Cardiff, 2016)