Myth of a Bulls legend exposed

JON CARDINELLI writes that contrary to popular perception, Heyneke Meyer boasts an attacking philosophy more ambitious than a 10-man game and an underrated penchant for technical innovation.

The appointment of the new Bok coach should evoke a collective sense of excitement among South African supporters. In Meyer the Boks finally have a coach with the technical know-how to amplify their strengths. More importantly, they have a coach capable of developing a previously neglected aspect of the Bok game.

Those who were against this appointment argued that Meyer was too conservative in his thinking, and that the Boks needed somebody more ambitious if they were to ever challenge the trendsetting All Blacks. Where this argument falls flat, however, is where it assumes that Meyer’s past teams were one-dimensional or that the man himself is opposed to moving outside of the laager and exploring unconventional ploys and options.

On the contrary, Meyer remains one of the most technically astute and open-minded coaches on the planet. He appointed Australian Todd Louden as his backline coach in 2007 and the move proved inspired as the Bulls emerged as the second-best try-scoring side in the Super 14 league stage.

Outside of his almost un-South African willingness to employ innovative people from abroad, he has travelled extensively to study other codes and exchange information with other respected coaches. If there was anything to be gained by exploring the trends in European rugby or visiting Aussie Rules and American Grid Iron teams, Meyer has gleaned an appreciable amount to be used to better his beloved Bulls.

The Bulls have adapted in each campaign, tailoring their game to suit the laws in place. It’s an attitude that must be replicated at national level, and Meyer more than anybody won’t be swept up by the emotional call for complete change. An improvement to the Boks’ attack is necessary, but that does not mean the Boks should dispense with their traditional forward and defensive strengths.

The All Blacks are a stellar example of a team with a complete approach. They are one of the few teams that can match South Africa physically but they have an appreciation for territory that is rooted in the laws of the game. Even at Super Rugby level, the best sides, read the Reds and Crusaders, are loath to play too much attacking rugby in their own half. They follow the strategy of playing for field position before unleashing their attack.

The Boks beefed up their defence in 2011 while their forward play was vastly improved. They had two great tactical kickers in Morne Steyn and Fourie du Preez who were capable of winning them field position, but lacked the attacking personnel capable of translating territory into points. This is the problem Meyer needs to address in his efforts to shape the Boks of 2012 into a complete side that can challenge and beat the All Blacks consistently.

Peter de Villiers had grand attacking ambitions for the Boks in 2008, but his technical ignorance let him down. Instead of building on the base provided by Jake White, who installed solid defensive systems and forward-oriented strategic templates, De Villiers punted a plan that advocated all-out attack.

The Boks endured a hammering as a result, finishing last in the 2008 Tri-Nations. It was only when De Villiers’ job was on the line later that year that he reverted to White’s way, a game plan that he stuck with right through to the 2011 World Cup. As a result, the once ambitious De Villiers finished his tenure having taken the Boks back instead forward.

Meyer will use what has worked in the past and blend it with his own ideas of what will benefit the Boks in future. Rather than play a more attacking brand the Boks would do better to strive for a more balanced approach. Meyer’s past teams have enjoyed such balance, and although the task is much more difficult at Test level and the game-ever changing, there should be confidence in his ability to restore some equilibrium to the Bok force.