CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) -- Partly forced by ill-timed injuries, South Africa is still experimenting just five games and two months out from the Rugby World Cup.
The No. 2-ranked Springboks, the two-time world champions, begin their final countdown to the showpiece against a World XV in Cape Town on Saturday.
They start the World Cup year without their best player from last season, and with their captain only just back from a long-term injury and with no match practice. An uncapped 21-year-old has been called in to fill a problematic position.
South Africa was the only team to beat world champion New Zealand last year, inflicting the dominant All Blacks' first defeat for two years. But that momentum may have dissipated, with Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer having to re-think his plans in important positions.
No. 8 Duane Vermeulen had surgery on a neck injury on Wednesday, and is a big doubt for the World Cup in September and October, possibly robbing the Springboks of their 2014 player of the year and a nominee for the world player of the year.
Captain Jean de Villiers made a quicker-than-expected recovery from a serious knee injury to make the bench for the World XV game -- to the relief of Meyer -- but the 34-year-old center hasn't played for seven months. He doesn't have much time to get up to speed.
"I just hope and pray he'll get through this game," Meyer said, calling De Villiers' long rehabilitation from a total reconstruction of the ligaments in his left knee an "emotional roller coaster."
"I thought it was, I won't say the end, but a big, big step back for our World Cup campaign," Meyer said of De Villiers' injury which occurred during a loss against Wales last November.
De Villiers will likely play 20-25 minutes on Saturday, Meyer said. Uncapped 21-year-old Jesse Kriel, normally a fullback, will start at outside center, where there are thin resources, in the biggest surprise in Meyer's first selection this year.
Trying to fill the immense hole left by Vermeulen, Meyer has gone with Warren Whitely, who will make his first start.
"I've always said I'm going to use these five games to see what the guys can add," Meyer said, maintaining he'd planned some level of experimentation in the final buildup to his first World Cup in charge.
Yet other problems remain: Victor Matfield, at the age of 38, will captain South Africa with De Villiers in the reserves, but there's no obvious backup for the veteran second rower, the team's key lineout jumper.
Meyer also revealed that powerful blindside flanker Willem Alberts may not make the World Cup with back, knee and ankle problems, putting Marcell Coetzee, normally an openside, on trial at blindside on Saturday.
The World XV game isn't an official test match, but it'll give South Africa a vital indication of where its preparations are, with tests against Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, and a final warmup against Argentina to come before the trip to England for the World Cup.
Up against the Springboks of 2015, are former Boks Bakkies Botha, who captains the World XV, Gurthro Steenkamp and JJ Engelbrecht, and ex-New Zealand forwards Ali Williams and Carl Hayman. There are eight players from European club champion Toulon in the World XV run-on team.
The game is "as close as you can get" to a full-on test match, World XV and former Australia coach Robbie Deans said.