Time to change tactics

2012-09-22 00:00

HEYNEKE Meyer was a popular choice when he replaced Peter de Villiers as the new Springbok rugby coach this year, but he has rapidly lost friends and disillusioned people.

Meyer is seven Tests into his new career and his record is patchy with three wins, two draws and two losses. No one can doubt his passion for the job, but this week he has to show that he is more than a stubborn, conservative coach, one committed to the past in plotting the way forward for the Springboks.

He has, with the Rugby Championship internationals against the Wallabies in Pretoria and the All Blacks in Soweto over the next fortnight, the ideal opportunity to break the shackles of the past. In tinkering with his selection and adapting, just slightly, his tactical approach to the demands of the evolving game, he can prove to his detractors that he is prepared to listen and learn.

It was Meyer’s response to recent defeats — in both Perth and Dunedin — that was most disturbing. He insists that the Springboks’ tactical approach was right on the money and it was individual failure which was to blame for the losses.

And that is precisely the point. The tried and tested Springbok (Blue Bull) approach is based on physical domination, tactical kicking, playing for territory, applying pressure and goaling penalties. Ultimately, it is an all-the-eggs-in-one-basket approach and, if the goalkicker has an off-day, as the unfortunate Morné Steyn did in Dunedin, then he takes the team and the country down with him.

The kicking game is an approach that can only be vindicated by victory. In defeat, as we saw in Dunedin, it looks ugly, dull, tentative and a waste of possession and talent.

Meyer, if he has the will, now has the chance to turn the season around and transform public perceptions. The All Black-dominated Rugby Championship is done and dusted, Morné Steyn is battling form and his natural successor, the 20-year-old Johan Goosen, is ready to start a Test in front of his home crowd.

Not only can Goosen kick as well as Steyn, but he will add a new dimension to the Boks’ backplay because he can also attack the gainline, run, pass and tackle.

But it is not a question of just playing one way or the other, and no one would want Meyer to ditch the Springboks’ traditional strengths, which took them so close to victory in Dunedin a week ago.

The Springboks made the All Blacks look decidedly ordinary for long periods as they bullied their forwards and cut off their backs with rush defence. That part of the tactical plan worked a treat but, unfortunately, the sharp finishing and penalties went missing.

The Boks, if they can complement the fiercely physical approach with skilful, creative backs who can turn overlap or counterattacking situations into tries, would again develop into a dynamic force, one able to play with both power and subtlety.

The concern, however, is that Meyer will spend the week doing little more than re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Even if he is persuaded to change the personnel, the fear is he will remain bogged down in his rigid game plan.

If Goosen and Pat Lambie are chosen for Loftus, they should be allowed to play to their strengths. The change would not have to be dramatic but the Springboks have the talent to play an invigorating game which exploits both their own strengths and the changing game.

Meyer was faced by an Everest when he took over. In contrast to De Villiers, who inherited a World Cup-winning squad in 2008, Meyer has had to re-build a fresh squad after a slew of world-class players retired while others moved overseas or went down with serious injury.

He, understandably, was reluctant to leave what little remained of his comfort zone and it is why, when in doubt, he fell back on players from Pretoria.

Morné Steyn, his invaluable match-winner when he coached at Loftus, was always going to be his banker with Zane Kirchner, another well-suited to the Blue Bull style, consistently preferred to Lambie at fullback.

But poor form and pressure has resulted in the whittling away of Blue Bull influence and this shift should be further confirmed by Meyer’s selection for the Test against the Wallabies next Saturday when Goosen replaces Steyn.

But spare a thought for Morné Steyn in all this. Not only was he the most convenient of scapegoats when his boot failed him, and the Boks, but he has had to carry the can for the South Africans’ outdated approach.

Steyn’s past heroics should not be forgotten and it was heir apparent Goosen, of all people, who this week highlighted the flyhalf’s remarkable record. The young flyhalf told reporters that he felt “deeply sorry for Morné”.

“He is a great guy, so humble and he works so hard in training … He is going through a difficult time now, we all do, and he deserves better than what he is getting from some people and the media.”

This is true, but Meyer must also accept blame because it is his strategy, a structured game plan lacking in balance, which places enormous pressure on an individual to win Test matches with the boot.

Goosen, incidentally, said that he was confident that he could fit in with the Springboks’ tactical kicking game if he were selected.

“But, of course, my strength is running the ball.”

The time has come for Meyer to select boldly and shift the emphasis. Lambie may still have to wait his time — particularly with discarded Bok coach De Villiers this week publicly criticising Meyer for fielding too few players of colour — but at least Goosen looks like a shoo-in for Loftus.

If the coach gets his selection and tactics right, and the Boks bounce back to beat the Wallabies and All Blacks over the next fortnight, Heyneke Meyer will again be flavour of the month. And ahead will lie the tour to the UK in November when a number of his first-choice players will be back to help carry the Springboks into a new, exciting era.

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