Rugby Championship state of play 2017: South Africa
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 17/08/17 4:31pm
Ahead of the 2017 Rugby Championship, the story in South Africa is one of potential redemption.
From August 19, we will see if that is truly the case as the Springboks take on New Zealand, Australia and Argentina home and away.
Before that, we take a look at the state of play in South Africa ahead of the tournament's beginning...
Have the Springboks turned a corner?
Allister Coetzee's debut campaign in 2016 became a horror show as the Springboks lost eight of their 12 Tests.
His very first game in charge was a defeat at home to Ireland for the first time in the nation's history, as Joe Schmidt's side recorded a 26-20 victory in Cape Town despite having 14 men for an hour.
From there, South Africa lost away in Argentina for the first time, suffered further defeats in Australia and New Zealand, before the All Blacks came to Durban and won 57-15, the heaviest loss suffered at home by the Boks in history.
On their tour to Europe in November 2016, South Africa failed to win a game. A 37-21 defeat against England was followed by a history-making loss against Italy, once again for the first time in history. Their last game of the tour saw them lose 27-13 against Wales in Cardiff.
Coetzee survived amid widespread public and media calls for his dismissal, but defence coach JP Ferreira and attack coach Mzwandile Stick were replaced by Brendan Venter and Franco Smith respectively.
Heading into the summer series against France the pressure was almost unbearable, but the Springboks came through with a whitewash victory to, perhaps, put them back on track.
The quality, or lack thereof, of the opposition must be taken into consideration with France decidedly poor in each Test, but even still, strong performances from Jan Serfontein, Siya Kolisi and Elton Jantjies will fill South African supporters with hope, while Coetzee also gave out six debuts during the series; another huge positive.
The Venter factor
For many people, the introduction of Venter to the set-up in particular was the main element to South Africa's improved form.
His arrival as defence and exits coach coincided with a sharp reduction in tries conceded. Throughout the 12 matches the Springboks played in 2016, they conceded 35 tries: an average of three per game.
In their three Tests with the French, they conceded just three scores, with Guy Noves' men unable to cross the whitewash at all in the third match.
South Africa's defence as a whole has markedly improved while their tackle success was a huge factor in them winning the summer series.
In the second Test, France had 64 per cent possession and 66 per cent territory, but an 88 per cent tackle success rate by Venter's charges saw them pull through.
Their work at the breakdown both in terms of cleaning out and slowing down opposition ball, combined with conceding fewer turnovers, has been the groundwork for success.
Venter is signed up as assistant coach to Conor O'Shea at Italy through to the 2019 World Cup, and whether he continues in his role with South Africa during the Rugby Championship is yet to be officially determined.
When asked in June if Venter would be remaining, Coetzee told the media: "Brendan will be staying on as a consultant.
"I'm really glad that we had the opportunity to spend some time together before the series and plan accordingly. We've also had the chance to get a strong team culture going, and it has made the difference."
His future could well have a say on how well South Africa perform.
More new coaches
Regardless of whether Venter stays or not, two coaches that will be returning to the Springboks are Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, though they may not be back in time for August.
Having left the South African set-up to take up three-year contracts with Irish province Munster, Erasmus and Nienaber took advantage of the same IRFU contract clause which allowed Pat Lam to exit Connacht for Bristol, to give notice of their plans to leave Munster after just one season.
The clause requires six months notice and therefore the pair are contractually obligated to remain with Munster until December, but such a situation is hardly ideal for all parties.
Therefore, should Munster find a replacement the chances are Erasmus and Nienaber will be allowed to leave early, but having blindsided the province with the move, this is unlikely to happen.
Even still, confirmation that Erasmus will be returning as a director of rugby and Nienaber as defence coach will be hanging over Coetzee's head during this campaign, and could well have an adverse effect on performances.
Indeed, former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers has claimed the appointment of Erasmus undermines Coetzee.
"Definitely [Coetzee must stand his ground with Erasmus], but that's not our part to deal with that, it is the coach's competency," De Villiers told EWN Sport in South Africa.
"He must stand up for himself, he can't expect you and me to stand for him there, and he must do it himself.
"He must fight it when the people accuse him, especially when it comes to the Rugby World Cup questions.
"What I can tell you, I'm looking forward to seeing Rassie Erasmus there because Brendan Venter believes in himself too much and Rassie also and everybody is going to be there also. So I'd like to see the fireworks."
Super Rugby form
During the 2016 Super Rugby campaign, the Lions were the only plus point from a South African perspective.
Johan Ackermann's side comprehensively beat the Crusaders and Highlanders at home in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, but fell short in the final against the Hurricanes, having forfeited home advantage due to a costly end of season loss to the Jaguares.
The other two South African franchises who made the last eight were humiliated. The Sharks were crushed 42-0 by the Hurricanes while the Stormers lost 60-21 to the Chiefs at home.
Fast forward 12 months and the same three South African franchises made the quarter-finals, but put in vastly different performances.
The Stormers pushed the Chiefs all the way in a tight 17-11 defeat in Newlands as Shaun Stevenson's try with four minutes to go proved the difference, while the Sharks were desperately unlucky not to beat the Lions in a 23-21 loss.
The Lions have also learned from last year and finished the season top of the overall standings having won 14 of their 15 fixtures, ensuring home advantage all the way to the final.
By a strange quirk of the format, however, the Lions did not face a single New Zealand franchise during the regular season, with those in Africa Conference 2 only playing games against the teams in the Australian conference.
But what can be said with certainty is that the South African franchises, like the national side, have enjoyed a far better 2017 than 2016.
The Lions came back from 22-3 down against the Hurricanes in their semi-final to secure a magnificent 44-29 victory after a superlative second half display at Ellis Park.
And but for a first-half red card to Kwagga Smith in the final, South Africa could have been heading into the Rugby Championship in August with the Super Rugby champions in their ranks...
Forwards: Dan du Preez, Uzair Cassiem, Jean-Luc du Preez, Siya Kolisi, Jaco Kriel, Oupa Mohoje, Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Lizo Gqoboka, Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Chiliboy Ralepelle.
Backs: Andries Coetzee, Warrick Gelant, Dillyn Leyds, Raymond Rhule, Courtnall Skosan, Jan Serfontein, Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel, Francois Venter, Curwin Bosch, Elton Jantjies, Handre Pollard, Ross Cronje, Francois Hougaard, Rudy Paige.