By MIKE GREENAWAY
Given Super 12 and Springbok results, the overall South African rugby picture is decidedly ugly, leaving coach Rudolf Straeuli with the unenviable task of breaking down that picture into a thousand pieces and reassembling it so that somehow the sum is greater than the parts.
Some would say he will have better luck turning water into wine. You can rest assured, though, that Straeuli will give it one heck of a go.
A fiercely proud and determined Afrikaner, Straeuli has been planning, plotting and scheming since the final whistle of that ultimate humiliation against England last November. He has carefully worked out a strategy that will see the country's best players gradually drafted back into the starting line-up over the course of his seven pre-World Cup tests, but only he knows what shape that starting XV will take for the all-important October 18 clash with England.
Over the course of the Super 12, Straeuli has spread his net as far as it will go.
He has urged back into action semi-retired players such as Os du Randt and Rassie Erasmus, he has negotiated with overseas-based players (formerly regarded as virtual traitors) and brought back four of them: Pieter Rossouw, Rob Kempson, Selborne Boome and Thinus Delport.
The country's injured players have spent more time under close observation at Cape Town's Institute for Sport than in their sick beds. Too true, when you consider that the list of unable players could in fact be the starting lineup for Perth.
Those not considered because of injury for the first test against Scotland this Sunday are Robbie Fleck, Werner Greeff, Jaque Fourie, Dean Hall, Breyton Paulse, Corne Krige, Jannes Labuschagne, Andre Pretorius, Rossouw, Brent Russell, Faan Rautenbach, Hendro Scholtz, Shaun Sowerby, John Smit, Bob Skinstad and Joe van Niekerk.
Most of those will be filtered into the set-up over the next month - the second test against Scotland (June 14), the test against Argentina (June 21) and the South African A game against the Pumas (June 25).
Meanwhile, Straeuli has picked a squad for the first test against Scotland that has all the finesse of a blunt object. No sign of the rapier here.
The Boks were underpowered and short on experience when they disastrously lost at Murrayfield in November. Little chance of their being outmuscled this time.
Most of the pack are from the Bulls, who as a team finished sixth in the Super 12 but whose pack of forwards ranked considerably higher.
Behind them is the old bruiser, Joost van der Westhuizen, and the delicate but deadly-with-the-boot Louis Koen. Next to him are a couple of slabs of meat in the form of Trevor Halstead and Andre Snyman.
It is an initial selection by Straeuli that suggests that the Springbok way is going to be defend, defend, defend, allied to a mighty pack forcing penalties for Koen to goal, rather that last season's Tri-Nations approach of attack, attack, attack.
The initial Springbok approach this season is going to be undeniably brutal. It remains to be seen whether this is going to be the norm. One key selection could say it all - if Straeuli persists with conservative Koen in the No 10 when the enterprising Andre Pretorius is fit, then we know the direction in which he is headed.
Interestingly, for the Scotland tests, only one player, flanker Pedrie Wannenburg, survives from the starting XV that lost 53-3 to England.
Quite right too.
* Mike Greenaway is rugby writer for the Natal Mercury.
By MIKE GREENAWAY