JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa starts the Tri-Nations with an injury-hit, under-strength and inexperienced squad but hopes a rest for its top players now will help deliver the World Cup later — like it did four years ago.
The defending world champion has 21 frontline players unavailable for Tri-Nations games in Australia and New Zealand and just two regular starters — veteran captain John Smit and flyhalf Morne Steyn — in a 28-man touring squad.
Vice-captain Victor Matfield headed the extensive list of injured stars — which includes Schalk Burger, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana and many others — who will miss away games against the Wallabies and the All Blacks in a Tri-Nations that's almost a practice tournament for this year's World Cup.
Adding to the Springboks woes is their delayed arrival in Australia after the plane carrying the squad to Sydney was forced to return to Johannesburg on Friday after one of its engines failed.
The squad would stay overnight in Johannesburg before leaving for Australia on Saturday.
In 2007, South Africa also sent a second-string group Down Under for the Tri-Nations, took losses, and then won a second world title with well-rested players.
The 2011 Boks played down any parallels with 2007, yet there is little sign of panic in the camp over the injuries — even with six uncapped players and a host with just a handful of tests starting South Africa's World Cup countdown.
"I think four years later, it's very difficult to try and find similarities," skipper Smit said Friday after the squad's final training session before flying to Australia to start the Tri-Nations. "There were things that we did last time that we were hoping would work and did.
"This time round you have got to deal with what you are given and play the cards you have got and at this stage that's what we've done."
The benefits of a rest for leading players could be key at rugby's showpiece later in the year, which has relegated the Tri-Nations into something of a distraction. The three southern hemisphere nations could do without it, according to Springboks coach Peter de Villiers.
This season has been extra-tiring for South Africa, Australia and New Zealand players, with an expanded Super 15 followed by the Tri-Nations and then the World Cup — which starts just two weeks after the Tri-Nations finishes.
"If we've got an extended Super 15 like we had, it would have been sensible not to have the Tri-Nations," De Villiers said. "But it's there, we're going to use it as an opportunity and it's the only thing we are looking forward to now."
For Smit, he is in his last international season.
Smit, who has captained his country a world-record 76 times in 102 tests, will retire from internationals after the World Cup — but dismissed suggestions that his final season for the Springboks will begin in charge of a 'B' team.
"These guys that are going over there (for the Tri-Nations), if they are a 'B' team, it's because it stands for Boks and nothing else," Smit said. "We are going over there to play some rugby and not just make up the numbers, and that's what happened four years ago.
"There's certainly a lot of youngsters ... but they have been pushing us over the last couple of days so I'm hoping they will push us even further."
De Villiers also pushed aside talk of sacrificing this Tri-Nations for the bigger goal but it's clearly a World Cup tryout for many players.
"You want to win all your games," De Villiers said on his targets for the Tri-Nations. "That determines if you keep your job or lose your job. For me it's all about winning, and nothing else.
"The guys there (on tour) will put up their hands and if they can force themselves into contention for the World Cup it will be a win-win situation for both (all) of us."
Young hopefuls like flyhalf Patrick Lambie, wing Bjorn Basson, flanker Ashley Johnson and props Coenie Oosthuizen, Werner Kurger and Dean Greyling aim to force themselves into World Cup reckoning in their first Tri-Nations.
"We're working hard to mature them a bit," De Villiers said. "Coming from Cape Town, where we know how to mature wine, we are using the same principle.
"It's always difficult, but then again they deserve to be selected."
De Villiers also said he was hopeful that influential openside flanker Heinrich Brussow — back in the squad after a yearlong absence with a serious knee injury and only passed fit Friday to tour — would play in Australia and New Zealand.
The coach said Brussow — who's in a race against time to make the World Cup after the layoff — is "one of those players you build a team around."
In an 11-year international career, Smit won a World Cup, two Tri-Nations titles and oversaw one of South Africa's most successful periods.
"You always wonder how long it will last. Every jersey you pull on you think it can always be your last," the 33-year-old front rower said. "You have just got to give everything you have got and see where it takes you. It'll be nice to get over there and play my last couple of Tri-Nations games."
It was suggested there would also be a gesture from longtime rivals in Australia and New Zealand in Smit's last season.
"I doubt it," Smit said, smiling. "I think they do have a tribute in mind but it's probably not the one I have in mind."
Forwards: John Smit (captain), Heinrich Brussow, Jean Deysel, Dean Greyling, Alistair Hargreaves, Ryan Kankowski, Werner Kruger, Ashley Johnson, Johann Muller, Coenie Oosthuizen, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Danie Rossouw, Deon Stegmann, Adriaan Strauss, CJ van der Linde, Flip van der Merwe.
Backs: Gio Aplon, Bjorn Basson, Juan de Jongh, Adrian Jacobs, Elton Jantjies, Patrick Lambie, Charl McLeod, Lwazi Mvovo, Odwa Ndungane, Wynand Olivier, Ruan Pienaar, Morne Steyn.
Gerald Imray can be followed at http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP