Cape Town – The Springboks’ shift back toward “traditional strengths” under Rassie Erasmus should stand them in good stead for their four-match November tour of the northern hemisphere.
That is the view of Heyneke Meyer, the former Bok coach whose four-year tenure culminated in them finishing as bronze medallists – a decent state of affairs considering the bumpier general fortunes in some of the years subsequently – at the 2015 World Cup.
Speaking to Sport24 this week from his Parisian base, where he is currently sports director of Stade Francais, Meyer said current Bok supremo Erasmus had put in place plenty of the key tools required to excel in European-staged Test matches, including an uncompromising pack and smarter all-round kicking game.
Already showing promising signs of turning around the French Top 14 club’s fortunes – they lie second after seven rounds, following a lowly 12th-placed finish last season – Meyer was something of an expert at engineering rosy results for the Boks in Europe.
During his tenure, they triumphed in 13 of 17 Tests played on that continent (win record 76.47 percent), including respective clean sweeps on the end-of-year tours of 2012 and 2013.
The Boks won two of four Tests on the 2014 mission – when Jean de Villiers experienced his horrendous leg injury in the tight, closing-match loss to Wales – as well as five of seven matches at the World Cup a year later, held in the UK.
Meyer said he did not wish to prescribe to the current Springboks how they should go about their business this time around (they play England, France, Scotland and Wales in that order), but offered some enlightening recollections of his and his staff’s methods when he was in charge.
“The first thing we did was to specifically stop calling it the ‘end of year tour’ … it gave too much of an impression of an ordeal; that we would be taking abroad a lot of players stuffed after a long home season.
“I wanted it to be ‘northern hemisphere tour’ instead, and to emphasise the excitement factor. We wanted the players to embrace spending time in the culture and history up north – remembering that in Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship you see a lot of the same places.”
Under Meyer’s watch, the Bok management also made every effort to downplay the likely cold conditions in Europe: canoeing legend and motivational speaker Martin Dreyer was even drafted in, reminding the squad that you don’t get harsh conditions, only “soft people”.
Meyer said he was also reluctant to select for European treks players who were too clearly close to burnout, and either on the brink of injury or already carrying too many niggles.
“We also cut back on the training regimes, considering the time of season, and were wary of spending too much time on buses in busy cities … three hours on a bus daily while going to gyms, training fields and back to hotels wasn’t very productive time for the guys, so we would try to combine our trips out wherever possible as there can be some big distances or traffic involved.
“Then you must get used to the likelihood of a wetter ball in the Test matches: sometimes for the hookers we would dip it in soapy water at lineout drills, to get them more used to the (hazards), and also have towels constantly nearby for drying purposes – they may seem silly little details but they are important.
“You have to persuade the backs to check their studs properly, for the relevant conditions. Backs are often more reluctant to use longer studs, but in the rain or mud you may need them in most of the positions.”
Meyer feels Erasmus can prosper on the tour: “He is going back to what makes South Africa most competitive: good physicality, playing to our strengths … tries coming from counter-attacks, turnovers, broken field.
“It is still so much more of a tactical game in the northern hemisphere; not so ball-in-hand, as the conditions usually just don’t suit it. You have to be prepared for arm-wrestles, grinding wins out. You will get punished if you think you can toss it around like in Super Rugby.
“The Boks will run into different defensive systems – this is not Super Rugby; these guys chop-tackle and you have to be ready for that.
“Scotland will wish to move the ball around if possible, but against France and England, for example, you must anticipate more rolling mauls and the like. You must select a big pack … set-piece is vital, especially a solid scrum, and you need men who can halt rolling mauls.
“But I think we are ticking boxes there.
“We have the right game-plan to do well, including the ability of all of our nine, ten and fifteen to be able to kick well, in an all-round sense, plus the back three must be safe under the high ball. And we are still scoring tries, don’t forget.”
Meyer also warns about getting too obsessed with analysis of the tour itinerary, including order of opponents and any thoughts of “targeting” certain matches.
“You mustn’t sweat too much over the roster; the mix isn’t too bad. Maybe playing England first at Twickenham is a good thing: they haven’t been together for a while and we are sharper, fresher from the Championship.
“Quite a few guys have been rested from the last few weeks of Currie Cup, and I think our conditioning, fitness is looking decent … we should be able to put some teams away as matches drag toward the finish.”
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