Heyneke Meyer tells RYAN VREDE a trend that has seen the breakdown become more of a contest again significantly improves the Springboks’ chances of defending their World Cup title.
The Springboks’ poor 2010 Test season saw them struggle to consistently exploit the breakdown law interpretations – which encouraged teams to play through phases and facilitated them being able to do so at high tempo – to their advantage in the manner the All Blacks and, to a lesser extent, the Wallabies did.
However, Meyer, currently director of rugby at the Bulls, said he has noticed a softening of what had become pedantic management of the breakdown, and explained that this would be significant for the Springboks’ bid to retain the World Cup.
‘Last year because the law interpretations at the breakdown were new, referees were policing that area far more vigilantly. The attacking team was heavily favoured and [Test] teams that could keep the ball through multiple phases thrived. Teams struggled to turn over possession, and only the smartest openside flankers were a factor as a result,’ Meyer told keo.co.za in an exclusive interview.
‘There was so much quick ball, but that isn’t the case any longer, it’s a contest again. It’s also a key reason the Stormers are doing as well as they are. They compete brilliantly at the breakdown and are able to set their defensive line, making it very, very difficult to breach them.
‘This has placed an added importance on tactical kicking once more, and when you look at the ingredients that will improve a team’s chances of being successful at the World Cup – tactical kicking, solid defence and a strong ruck contest – the Springboks tick all the boxes.
‘I had reservations about our ability to play the multi-phase, high-tempo game that the rules encouraged. But now I’m more optimistic.’
Meyer added that, while it had been a disadvantage for the Bulls in Super Rugby, the likelihood that Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and Pierre Spies (all starters in New Zealand) would peak at the tournament would be beneficial to the Springboks.
‘The three of them started slowly because they all had operations in the off-season and were recovering,’ he said. ‘This limited their pre-season preparation and the consequences of that were seen in the early rounds of the competition. But they’ve all improved gradually and the Boks will get the best of them at the World Cup.’
The role of the Tri-Nations in a World Cup year has polarised opinion in the South African rugby fraternity. Reports suggest that the Springbok selectors are contemplating resting a number of their key players for Tests in the tournament, an approach that former Springbok coach Jake White followed and said contributed massively to their conditioning in France in 2007.
Meyer holds the view that there is value to be gained through an alternative route.
‘Resting the players in the 2007 Tri-Nations was hailed as a success, but I don’t think we should limit our thinking in this way. I’m sure there’s more than one route to success, although I fully understand the rationale behind wanting to rest players,’ he said.
‘I just see massive value in the group playing together, given how soon the pool matches start after that (22 days). I would place a huge premium on beating New Zealand in New Zealand just a couple of weeks before the tournament will be held there. The psychological lift that would give the players would be invaluable, particularly if they face the All Blacks in the play-off stages. Defeat wouldn’t be a tragedy because all the pressure will be on them in a play-off situation.
‘But it’s important for us to back whatever strategy the Springboks adopt in this regard. Peter and the team deserve all our support.’
The bulk of the 30-man squad is predictable, but there is room for a couple of bolters. Asked who, outside of the established group had impressed him, Meyer said: ‘I rate Johann Sadie (Stormers) unbelievably highly. He is a brilliant, brilliant young player. He is quick, strong relative to his size, runs beautiful lines and plays without any apparent fear of failure. He, for me, would add value to the World Cup squad. He could play centre or wing, and with a safety net in a squad of experienced guys, playing him isn’t a gamble. Frans Steyn thrived in that environment in 2007. Johann could do the same.
He continued: ‘I’d also find a place for Adriaan Strauss (whom he coached at the Bulls). He is playing the best rugby of his career. Every week I watch him I’m always impressed with his technical ability and work rate, which is second to none in the group of South African hookers.’