Nick Mallett and his colleagues on the South African selection panel could field 15 uncapped rookies against England on the high veldt this summer and still give the tourists a run for their Krugerrands, but the red rose army will still take solace from the absence of one very special Springbok. Bobby Skinstad, the loose forward with a reputation the size of Jonah Lomu's thighs, will miss the two-Test series in June and is not expected to play rugby of any description until next year.
The South African Rugby Football Union confirmed yesterday that their star back-rower's knee injury was far more serious than they had originally believed, and it is now clear that the Bokke hierarchy made a serious error of judgement in dragging Skinstad away from the phsyio's couch and picking him for last autumn's World Cup - a competition in which his performances were profoundly underwhelming.
"Due to the nature and chronicity of the injury, it is unlikely that Skinstad will play any rugby this season," said a Sarfu spokesman. "However, medical practitioners handling his treatment are optimistic that he will be ready to resume full training by the end of the year." The Springboks' medical consultant, Dr Ismail Jakoet, added: "The orthopaedic surgeons have recommended a low-risk approach, continuing with conservative treatment with the aim of strengthening the knee while avoiding excessive loading of the joint. The safest option is to take the rehabilitation one step at a time."
If only the Boks had opted for the cautious approach last spring, when the 23-year-old Western Stormers captain suffered the injury in a car accident after playing in a cup semi-final, the fresh-faced hero of South African rugby might now be in his pomp. As things stand, though, his career is teetering on the brink of premature decline.
Much to Mallett's relief, one of his more proven performers at Test level, the World Cup captain Joost van der Westhuizen, plans to return to top-flight rugby within the next three weeks. Van der Westhuizen, the only obvious challenger to Australia's George Gregan as the world's best scrum-half, has also been struggling with knee trouble - he finished the World Cup in serious discomfort - but may turn out for the Northern Bulls in their Super 12 fixture with the Wellington Hurricanes in Pretoria on 12 May.
However, the Bulls' selectors are reluctant to give Van der Westhuizen more than 20 minutes against the New Zealanders, and that means the national captain will almost certainly be lacking match fitness by the time England arrive for their Tests in Pretoria and Bloemfontein. Clive Woodward would not dream of tempting fate by saying so, but he must feel that the Boks are as vulnerable as they are ever likely to be in their own backyard.
Meanwhile, the surviving Welsh contenders in this season's Heineken Cup, Llanelli, are feeling almost as battle-weary as their forthcoming semi-final opponents from England, Northampton. The Scarlets are short of a tight-head prop for this evening's important Welsh-Scottish league match at Newport and, as of yesterday, were entirely at a loss as to where they might find one. "John Davies has knee trouble and Martyn Madden hurt his finger in the domestic cup semi-final against Ebbw Vale," said Anthony Buchanan, the team manager, who has been trawling the lower divisions for a stopgap. "So far, we have not been able to get a replacement prop. The search goes on."
Having seen Northampton lose two Allied Dunbar Premiership matches on the bounce - the pressure of fighting on three fronts is beginning to take its toll on the Midlanders - Llanelli intend to guard against exhaustion by withdrawing the majority of their front-liners from tonight's awkward encounter at Rodney Parade. They cannot take too many liberties during the domestic league run-in, though; in common with Northampton, they are by no means guaranteed a top five finish - the cut-off point for Heineken qualification next season. The Scarlets may be chasing a cup double, just the Saints, but success at this level is every bit as stressful as failure.