Blending brains and brawn

Heyneke Meyer believes a hybrid of tactical precision and mental strength will determine the victor when the Sharks meet the Bulls at King’s Park on Saturday.

Meyer coached the Bulls to the Super 14 championship in 2007 before narrowly missing selection for the Springboks coaching role in 2008. He then coached Premiership club Leicester Tigers before returning to South Africa to be with ailing family members. He is currently the CEO of Sports Max, a company that looks at the holistic development of elite athletes.

Meyer said he expected the game to be relatively conservative in nature and that it would be characterised by an emphasis on forward play and tactical kicking. He noted the Sharks’ prowess from broken field and stressed that the Bulls must starve their supply in this regard, or risk exposing themselves to dangerous counter-attacks.

‘I watched the Bulls play the Cheetahs [last Saturday] and knew that if they opened it up the Cheetahs would feed off their mistakes. That’s exactly what happened. They can’t afford to make the same errors against a very good side like the Sharks,’ Meyer told keo.co.za.

‘What they’ve done so far has made them successful. I’ve heard criticism of their percentage approach but they’re top of the log with a chance of hosting a semi-final. They must have been doing something right.

‘The Sharks are an accomplished unit who are very difficult to beat in Durban. In the 2007 final they pinned us in our half through the boots of Percy Montgomery, Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn. The Bulls can’t allow them to dictate the field position like that because once they get on a roll they’re very hard to stop.’

Meyer said the return from suspension of Rory Kockott would add a skilled tactical kicker to their arsenal and added that the Bulls’ capacity to match them in this facet of play would hinge heavily on the availability of Fourie du Preez. The incumbent Springbok No 9 injured his calf muscle a fortnight ago and is uncertain of being fit for the match.

‘Not taking anything away from Heini Adams and Francois Hougaard, who are good scrumhalves in their own right, it’ll be a massive boast if Fourie was available, especially considering the [tactical] pattern the game is likely to follow,’ Meyer said.

‘He is the best tactical kicking scrumhalf in world rugby, and if you review the Bulls’ season you’ll note that many of their tries have come from box kicks Fourie has put up. He can put the ball on a dime and weights it so perfectly that he gives his wingers enough time to contest the ball. This puts a massive amount of pressure on the opposition. He’ll be a key player if he is fit.’

Meyer did, however, explain that given how closely the teams are matched, technical and tactical superiority would not be the sole determinant of the winners. He said the ability to manage the pressure of the occasion and focus on the task at hand without being influenced by outside distractions – like qualification permutations – will be central to the success of either side.

In recent years the Bulls have often scrapped for a semi-final spot in the final stages of the tournament, the most notable of which came against the Reds in 2007, when they achieved the goal of having to beat the Queenslanders by a 72-point margin.

‘I won’t say it gives the Bulls an edge to have been in high pressure situations over the last couple of seasons, but they will know how to prepare and also have the benefit of knowing that they have beaten the Sharks at King’s Park in a high pressure match [the final in 2007],’ Meyer said.

‘But ultimately what happened before is fairly inconsequential. The Sharks will be determined to beat their great rivals irrespective of whether they are knocked out of the tournament by kick-off or not. You have to remember there is plenty of pride at stake, but more than that, the players will be wanting to make an impression on the Springbok selectors. That’s a huge motivating factor in itself.’

Meyer continued, saying it was imperative that the coaches of both sides have a clear idea of how they want to play and that they communicate that effectively to the players.

‘You have to control the controllables,’ he said. ‘Neither team can afford to wait until Saturday afternoon to decide how they should approach the match because of whatever scenarios the preceding games would have throw up.

‘They coaches should have a clear idea of how they want to play and that should have been drilled into the players from the Monday morning practice already. Players need clear messages so that they can prepare adequately. It’s crucial that both coaches detail exactly how they intend to play from the outset.

‘The Bulls must set themselves to win first and foremost, then focus on getting the bonus point,’ he added.

‘The Sharks will know what’s required by the time the match begins and they’ll probably need five points to book a place in the semis if other results go their way.

‘It’s set up to be one of the best South African derbies in years.’

By Ryan Vrede