John Smit believes the recent series against the British and Irish Lions has left South Africa in their best position yet heading into a Tri-Nations competition.
The Springboks face New Zealand in Bloemfontein on Saturday on the back of a gruelling 2-1 triumph over Ian McGeechan’s side, a success which has made them favourites not only to beat the All Blacks this week, but also to top the table come the end of the tournament.
In any other year the world champions would have played an opposing Test nation in the build up to the event, which also features Australia, and last season they beat Wales 2-0 before recording a one-off win against Italy.
But after the series win over the Lions, captain Smit, who will be leading the team for a record 59th time at Vodacom Park, is adamant they are now well-placed to win the Tri-Nations title for the first time since 2004.
He said: “I think the benefit lies in the fact that in the British and Irish Lions we faced the best of the teams combined that we normally face in the June Tests ahead of the Tri-Nations.
“If one thinks of the teams that come here at this time of the year, we had good preparation as we beat a Lions team at full strength.
“So the three tough Tests we had against them have ensured that our preparations this year have been the best yet for the Tri-Nations.”
Springbok coach Peter de Villiers named an impressive starting XV yesterday, with the only notable absentees being centre Adi Jacobs due to a groin injury and flanker Schalk Burger, currently serving a 12-week ban for 'eye gouging'.
Jaque Fourie has come in for the Sharks midfielder, while Burger has been replaced by Heinrich Brussow, one of the stand-out players against the Lions, with JP Pietersen, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Ruan Pienaar, Pierre Spies and Bakkies Botha all returning after being rested in the last Test against the Lions.
The selection of fly-half Pienaar remains the most contentious one, considering he replaced Morne Steyn, the Bulls ace who secured the Lions series with his penalty in Pretoria.
Asked about the decision and the headaches De Villiers faces when picking a Springbok team, Smit added: “Long may that problem last. It’s simply a wonderful position to be in and I think we are blessed from a South African point of view with the kind of talent that we have at our disposal.
“So it’s a good 22 and the guys have a lot of confidence in each other and certainly we will try and make sure that we can follow through with all of that on Saturday.”
As for their overall chances at the title, he added: “I believe we are good enough to compete in this competition and have a crack at it.
“We haven't won the Tri-Nations trophy for a while. I think we have chosen a strong team that is good enough to compete properly this year.”