South Africa's Rugby Championship opener against Argentina on Saturday signifies the start of "the real challenge" for the Springboks, according to Eben Etzebeth.
Etzebeth will skipper the side in the absence of captain Warren Whiteley - ruled out following groin surgery - and acknowledged Allister Coetzee's side have a lot of work ahead to restore themselves as one of the sport's most dominant sides.
A disappointing Rugby Championship in 2016 was followed by defeats to England, Italy and Wales in the November Tests, but a 3-0 whitewash of France in June has provided a huge confidence boost.
Stormers lock Etzebeth is keen for the Springboks to continue their push for improvement at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium this weekend.
"It is difficult to judge yourself when you are playing against just one team," Etzebeth told SuperSport. "The championship consists of matches against several teams, so it is now that the real challenge starts.
"We were quite happy with what we managed to do in the June series, but we know that we now need to step up a level. There were areas we felt needed improving so hopefully we will be better in the championship."
A 26-24 victory over South Africa was Argentina's only win in the 2016 Rugby Championship. They recovered from back-to-back defeats at home to a largely second-string England side in June by thumping Georgia 45-29, but must step up in the face of much sterner challenges in the coming weeks.
HEAD TO HEAD
South Africa: 21
Elton Jantjies (South Africa)
No one scored more points in the 2017 Super Rugby season than Lions fly-half Jantjies.
Although the Johannesburg side fell at the final hurdle for the second successive campaign, Jantjies' haul of 197 points proved his worth. He struggled to get going in last year's Rugby Championship but notched 52 points and his first international try in the victorious series against France, holding him in good stead for the tournament.
Martin Landajo (Argentina)
Argentina enjoyed the most time in possession of any team in last year's Rugby Championship, an average of 17 minutes and 12 seconds per game.
If they can repeat that, the distribution of scrum-half Landajo will be key to their hopes of getting under way in positive fashion. The 29-year-old will also be eager to impress when he makes his 70th appearance for the Pumas this weekend.
South Africa: Andries Coetzee, Raymond Rhule, Jesse Kriel, Jan Serfontein, Courtnall Skosan, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje; Tendai Mtawarira, Malcolm Marx, Coenie Oosthuizen, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Siya Kolisi, Jaco Kriel, Uzair Cassiem.
Argentina: Joaquin Tuculet, Ramiro Moyano, Matias Orlando, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Emiliano Boffelli, Nicolas Sanchez, Martin Landajo; Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Agustin Creevy, Enrique Pieretto, Guido Petti, Tomas Lavanini, Pablo Matera, Tomas Lezana, Leonardo Senatore.
Ross Cronje (South Africa): "We are very excited to get going and I feel we have an exciting backline at our disposal, which if we play well could unleash great possibilities. We have lots of grit plus a bit of flair, and that makes for a good mix that is exciting from a backline point of view. We know they [Argentina] were successful with their aerial attack last year but this time we have a definite plan to counter them."
Tomas Cubelli (Argentina): "We have a style of play that bothers them. They have trouble tackling us. We have hurt them with our attacking in all the games we have played. Although they are a top-level team, a superpower, I think we can cause them problems."
- South Africa are undefeated from their previous four fixtures at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium (W3, D1), restricting their opponents to just 10 points per game on average at the venue.
- The Springboks have lost seven of their last nine games in The Rugby Championship, including their heaviest home defeat ever in their last such match (57-15 against New Zealand).
- Argentina enjoyed the most time in possession of any team in The Rugby Championship 2016 (17m 12s per game), as well as boasting the best ruck success rate (96 per cent) of any of the four nations.
- Juan Manuel Leguizamon (77) is poised to equal Pedro Sporleder (78) as the third-most-capped forward in Pumas history; only Rolando Martin (86) and Mario Ledesma Arocena (84) have played more.