Meyer’s ultimate test

2012-10-13 00:00

SPRINGBOK coach Heyneke Meyer was convinced that a three-Test series against England and six Rugby Championship internationals would leave him with a settled squad and a winning pattern ahead of the November tour to the United Kingdom.

But the events of the past four months have served only to muddy the waters, leaving the South African rugby public — if not the coach — in a state of confusion, both about the composition of the team and the style of rugby they should be playing

In contrast to Peter de Villiers, his predecessor who inherited a talented, experienced and World Cup-winning squad, Meyer has had to start almost from scratch after retirements, overseas contracts and injuries robbed him of more than a dozen first-choice, experienced players.

His rebuilding efforts, to be honest, have not gone well. The rugby gods, while not exactly conspiring against him, have not made his job any easier.

Mid-season injuries to a couple of his quality players — Bismarck du Plessis, JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn — and a lack of consistent form among the few remaining seniors, has left him with more questions than answers.

It started going wrong from the start. He had hoped that scrumhalf Fourie du Preez would quit Japan and rejoin flyhalf Morné Steyn to at least provide him with continuity and expertise in the pivotal halfback positions. But Du Preez opted to return to Japan, Steyn lost his form and Meyer is now no nearer to plugging the hole.

This, in a nutshell, has been Meyer’s problem, a glaring shortage of influential, experienced players in the decision-making roles.

Ruan Pienaar has performed adequately at scrumhalf, but Meyer is still hankering after Fourie du Preez and hopes to take him on the UK tour next month. But it is the position of flyhalf which continues to nag away.

Meyer was certainly pressured by the rugby public, commentators and the media into dropping his Blue Bulls favourite Morné Steyn after the Springbok lost his kicking form.

“This was my hardest decision as coach,” Meyer said.

The time seemed right as Meyer turned to the 20-year-old Johan Goosen and there was the expectation that a change at flyhalf would bring a more enlightened Springbok approach, a new direction and some invention.

The early signs were positive, as five tries were scored at Loftus, but it was against a mediocre, diluted Wallaby outfit and Goosen, under intense pressure and playing with an injury, and the Boks were quickly brought to earth by the slick, smart All Blacks a week later.

And so here we are again, back to square one, again speculating about the flyhalf and again wondering if Meyer will fall back on Morné Steyn and retreat into his comfort zone of the old, familiar game plan for the heavy pitches of the UK.

The final three weeks of the Currie Cup should throw up some answers and Meyer has the opportunity to assess the form of three flyhalves, Steyn (Blue Bulls), Elton Jantjies (Lions) and Pat Lambie (Sharks) before settling on his tour party.

There are other problems in this Bok squad. Captain and centre Jean de Villiers appears tired and jaded and his midfield partner Jaco Taute looks more of a fullback than a centre. If Meyer is not happy to play Lambie at fullback, then Taute should take over from Zane Kirchner at 15.

Kirchner did very little wrong during the Rugby Championship. He was brave and solid under the high ball, cleared well and made his tackles. But he does not possess the creative, playmaking spark which this Springbok backline so desperately needs.

What is also becoming a concern is the quality of the coaching in the Bok squad. The coaches, brought by Meyer from the Bulls, are new to the Bok squad and they will take time to settle. But certain aspects of the Boks’ rugby has deteriorated. Louis Koen had little success with the goalkickers, as the Steyns (Morné and Frans), Pienaar and Goosen failed and Tests were lost.

But it was the naivety of the Boks’ defence, particularly in the final Test at Soccer City, that was most worrying.

Meyer and De Villiers, as coach and captain, kept talking about “soft moments” which cost the Boks victories during the Rugby Championship. But the problem ran much deeper than that and the All Blacks exposed them in Soweto.

The Springboks have succeeded against the All Blacks in the past by closing down their backs quickly and aggressively behind the advantage line and cutting them off from their forwards. But last Saturday, the Bok defenders sat back on their heels, drifted and waited for the All Blacks to run at and around them, easily creating overlaps and space on the outside.

Clearly, new defence coach John McFarland has a strategy, but it was painfully obvious that he was not on the same wavelength as the players at Soccer City.

There were some bright Bok moments, in defeat in Dunedin and victory at Loftus. Bryan Habana, though he often appears to be on his own mission, has again emerged as a major threat and the inclusion of JP Pietersen and the exciting Raymond Rhule will add variety and a sharp attacking edge to the Boks’ backplay in the UK.

Flank Francois Louw, who has benefited from his time playing in England, was the most influential of the loose forwards, but the hefty backrow, impressive at the breakdown, lacked the pace to provide any defensive cover or pressure the opposing flyhalf.

The Springboks’ set piece work was solid. Meyer has depth in the second row — though he still needs greater consistency from Andries Bekker — while retired French prop Pieter de Villiers has clearly helped in his coaching of the Bok scrum.

Just a week after the Currie Cup final, Meyer and the Boks face the most awkward of tours to the UK where they will face fresh Irish, Scottish and English opponents on their home turf.

Meyer’s own troops will be knackered, having dragged themselves through a marathon Super Rugby campaign, a three-Test series agai-nst England, six Rugby Championship internationals and the fag-end of the Currie Cup competition over an intense period of nine months.

Heyneke Meyer, first as a selector and then as a coach, faces the most daunting of challenges.

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