Bryan Habana, perhaps the most accomplished finisher in the history of South African rugby and undoubtedly one of the union game's modern masters, has been talking at considerable length about the "no excuses" culture in the Springbok camp, so it was interesting to hear the new national coach, Heyneke Meyer, getting his excuses in first yesterday. "England have played six games; we have yet to play any," Meyer said after naming his side for the start of a ground-breaking Test series at Kings Park this weekend.
Could this be a sign of insecurity? Of weakness, even? The tourists can but hope. The Boks will begin the three-match programme – the first time the countries have faced each other more than twice in a single tour or competition – without such ruthless operators as John Smit, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Andries Bekker, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussow, Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie, all of whom are injured, in international retirement or out of favour. There will be three new caps, two of them in the engine room of the pack, and, inevitably, some hesitation and confusion. If ever there was a time for England to land a significant blow on the double world champions...
Yet having made the point about preparation or the lack of it, Meyer quickly gravitated towards the Habana position. "This will be a huge step up for some players but in this country, you're expected to win from the start," said the man who was overlooked for the Springbok job in 2007 despite guiding the Blue Bulls to the Super 14 title and might have been lost to rugby altogether but for a career-affirming spell at Leicester the following year.
"I understand and accept this as the reality," he continued. "I also know that what you lose in experience, you gain in desire. Young players bring energy to a side and I have faith in them. There'll be butterflies, but as long as they're all flying in the same direction I'll be fine. I don't know how I'm going to sleep over the next three days, but I'm not so much nervous as excited."
Meyer's spell in Premiership rugby lasted only a few months: when his parents fell ill in late 2008, he left Welford Road on a sabbatical from which he never returned. There had been rumours of dissatisfaction with his strategic approach at board level – pretty much par for the course at Leicester – but yesterday, the South African was at pains to emphasise the transformative effects of his brief stay in the Midlands. "Rugby can be pretty hard on your family life and I had been looking at other possibilities," he acknowledged. "But for the Leicester experience, I probably wouldn't be here now. It took me out of my comfort zone: it was one of those get-to-know-yourself-again moments."
There are some in these parts who wonder whether Meyer knows nearly enough about his personnel: in particular the folk down Cape Town way, who expected more Stormers in the side at the expense of a few Pretoria-based Bulls and Durban-based Sharks. It is very rare indeed for the Boks to begin an international season with an untried, untested second-row partnership – if the coach's decision to blood the much talked-about young giant Eben Etzebeth was widely anticipated, the appearance alongside him of the former Northampton lock Juandre Kruger was more of a surprise – and there must be some risk attached to playing the 21-year-old flanker Marcell Coetzee ahead of Brussow, acknowledged as one of the most effective "fetchers" in the sport.
Not that Meyer was in any mood to admit he was taking a gamble. "Juandre has the experience of playing successfully in England while Eben is big and physical – someone who doesn't shy away from contact," the coach argued. "He can be a world-class player, definitely. Marcell? He's played some great rugby this year and brings something different to the party. He'll be a superstar in years to come, I think."
Meanwhile, the tourists were scheduled to name their side today, with the Harlequins loose-head prop Joe Marler pushing hard for a first cap in the front row – Alex Corbisiero, the incumbent, has not played since undergoing surgery on his biceps – and the Exeter flanker Tom Johnson under consideration to fill the back-row vacancy.
Chris Ashton, the World Cup wing who made a welcome rediscovery of the try-scoring habit by putting a hat-trick past the Barbarians before departure, will certainly start and his confrontation with the exceptional Habana is as mouthwatering as it gets. "He's pretty good at everything, isn't he?" commented the Saracens-bound player. "The kicking game is a trademark aspect of Springbok rugby, their chase is always good and Habana is outstanding, being both fast and bouncy. He certainly looks quick on television." Had Ashton ever emulated his rival's celebrated foot race with a cheetah by pitting himself against a wild animal of the English variety. A hare, perhaps? Or a ferret? "No," he responded. "I raced against a really old motorbike once, in a field in Wigan. I got beat."
Like everyone else, Ashton was intrigued by the decision of another famous son of Wigan, the coach Andy Farrell, to walk away from Saracens in preparation, it is widely assumed, for a resumption of the red-rose role he performed in the Six Nations. Having worked with Farrell back then, the wing had been looking forward to renewing acquaintances at club level. Now, it seems they will work together with England, or not at all.
"I had no idea it was going to happen, but there has to be a reason Andy left," Ashton said. "He was a massive help to me during the Six Nations and was one of the reasons I signed with Saracens. He's a good motivator who puts a lot of time and effort into his coaching. He's very thorough and it makes a difference. I hope I'll still have contact with him. I don't think he'll ever be too far away."