Meyer’s baptism by fire

2012-12-01 00:00

IT is a lingering memory of the international season, the sight of the wide-eyed Heyneke Meyer suffering on the touchline, his face sucked hollow by anguish as his young Springboks battle to realise a nation’s ambitions.

It is a living-room image which epitomised the season, a long, stuttering and often painful haul, for the players, the coach, the public and even the media.

Meyer remarked that every one of his 12 Tests this year “felt like a final” and therein lay the problem. The constant theme running through the international season, one which stretched from the opening Test against England in June and ended against the same opposition at Twickenham on Saturday evening, was a fear of failure. The anxiety was reflected both in Meyer’s selection and in the inhibited way the Springboks went about their business.

Taking his first tentative steps as the new coach, and with his career and reputation on the shoulders of a patched-up, youthful squad, Meyer was under immense pressure. The strain was clearly visible. He was trapped by a rugby public — and media — demanding victory but also wanting the job done in style.

While his predecessor, Peter de Villiers, inherited an almost untouched World Cup-winning squad, rich in talent and experience, Meyer found himself in the something old, something new, something borrowed mode. Injuries, retirements and defections had denied him many of South Africa’s world-class players.

But there is a very real feeling that the worst is now behind us and Meyer, in surviving a daunting season-long examination, has laid a solid foundation for next year.

National selector Ian McIntosh, who was with the Springboks for the latter part of their UK tour, understands Meyer’s anxieties and his fears.

Mac, a former Springbok coach, was the recipient of the DCM (Don’t Come Monday) award from SA rugby boss Louis Luyt after losing a series in New Zealand in 1994 and he can speak with some authority of the unrelenting pressure of the job and the demands it makes of coaches.

“The first year is exceptionally difficult,” says Mac. “I don’t think people understand just how hard it is. There is no time to settle into the job. You have to hit the ground running, but the pressure is there from the very start and it is relentless.”

But McIntosh believes that Meyer has emerged with credit from the toughest of seasons.

“I’m very positive about the future. When you take the young talent of this squad, and add the experience of those players who will be returning from injury next year, then I think we have the makings of a great Springbok team.”

He says the loss of a dozen first-choice players, leading to the introduction of new talent, has added to the depth in the squad while Meyer was able to settle on new combinations.

“I have been most impressed with Heyneke. We can all see his passion for the game and the Springboks, but he is a student of rugby and the decisions he makes are backed by sound reasoning.”

McIntosh agrees that the Springboks’ attacking game was disappointing.

“But I have no doubt that Heyneke is on the right track. The attack will grow as Heyneke and the players settle into the job and the confidence spreads.

“Heyneke will adjust as circumstances change, as the youngsters establish themselves and experienced players return. He has already shown he can adapt and change. He has an excellent crop of players and I’m excited about the future. I have absolutely no doubt that we will be able to match the All Blacks next year.”

The current All Blacks are demonstrably setting the mark (though the Boks, had they kicked their goals, could and should have beaten them in Dunedin). The New Zealanders’ superiority is no surprise.

They are World Cup champions, rich in experience and with continuity in both their coaching and playing personnel. Their talented players are confident and composed in implementing a coherent game plan.

The All Blacks are also centrally contracted by the NZ Rugby Union and their workloads are managed. The Springboks, in contrast, battle through marathon Super Rugby and Currie Cup competitions for their franchises (who pay their salaries) and then have to front up for a long international season. Little wonder that they had run out of puff by November.

Yet the Springboks, in spite of the disruptions and their battle fatigue, have already developed a pack of forwards which can worry the best.

Francois Louw, by default but benefiting from his seasons with Bath, found himself in the openside flank position and he flourished while the physicality of fellow-loose forwards Willem Alberts, Duane Vermeulen and Marcell Coetzee was a feature in the improving Springbok pack.

The Boks did not lose one of their own lineouts in three Tests on their UK tour, a remarkable feat which says as much about the lineout jumping of Eben Etzebeth and company as it does about the pinpoint throwing of hooker Adriaan Strauss, who must be one heck of a darts player.

Etzebeth, who only turned 21 in October, has emerged as an extraordinary talent. At 2,03 metres and 123 kg, he is a massive presence at the front of the lineout and it is little wonder that Meyer is already describing him as the world’s best number four lock. It also explains why the Sharks had so many lineout problems against Western Province in the Currie Cup final.

The Springboks’ forward play and their wholehearted and organised defence has been mightily impressive, in contrast to the backplay which has been sterile and lacking ambition.

But Meyer’s emphasis is already changing and the predictable Morné Steyn was leapfrogged by first Johan Goosen followed by Pat Lambie and Elton Jantjies.

Even in the wet of Twickenham there were brief signs that Lambie, encouraged instead of hobbled by Meyer, was raising his sights and looking to test defences with ball in hand.

Meyer now has the time and opportunity to settle the on-going flyhalf debate with Lambie, Goosen, Jantjies and Steyn all playing for different franchises in next year’s Super Rugby. Meyer has also intimated that — away from the heavy fields of Europe — Jaco Taute rather than Zane Kirchner will be his first-choice fullback.

The return next year of Bryan Habana and Frans Steyn from injury, and possibly Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie from Japan, will bring experience and variety to the backplay and will surely persuade Meyer to add some width to the Boks’ forward-oriented game.

Meyer, in a trying introduction to Test rugby, has been understandably tentative this year. But his confidence will grow, and that will rub off on his players, as he settles into the job next year.

There might even be the chance for him to stop and smell the roses ... and that was never possible during the long and hard grind of 2012.

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