Meyer’s management put to test
18 Jun 2012
JON CARDINELLI writes that while there is a sense of accomplishment following a series victory, Heyneke Meyer’s task grows harder this week as he attempts to manage his team without blunting its competitive edge.
Meyer would never make a decent poker player. His emotions have been evident since he was appointed in late January. In the two Tests against England and indeed in the weeks that preceded them, the Bok coach hasn’t tried to hide the fact that he’s been nervous, and even scared, of losing to England in his first series in charge.
The trepidation has stemmed more from the Boks’ minimal preparation than the threat England would present. It has also had to do with the personnel that was available for the three-Test series.
The Boks have mixed the magnificent with the hopelessly mediocre in the two Tests to date, but that was to be expected. The bottom line is that they have come through the first two matches with two victories. They have done so without Schalk Burger, Andries Bekker and Juan Smith and they have managed to win with three Test rookies starting in their pack.
If Meyer had been worried about the lack of synergy, he would have been even more concerned about the lack of depth in certain positions. It was nothing short of amazing that the Boks came through that brutal first Test with only two losses to injury, namely fullback Zane Kirchner and reserve prop Coenie Oosthuizen. As seen in the second Test, these losses didn’t impact on the team synergy or performance.
Meyer was fortunate that players like Juandré Kruger and Willem Alberts didn’t go down in the first Test. Kruger may be a rookie at this level, but with Victor Matfield retired and Bekker crocked, he is the best No 5 lock in South Africa and has proved his ability to manage the lineout in the local and English competitions. The Boks suffered when he was stretchered from the Ellis Park pitch in the second half, and fortunately they were able to hold on for the win.
The extent of Kruger’s neck injury will be announced on Monday afternoon as will that of Alberts’ ailment. The powerful blindside has been one of the standouts in this series, and the Boks certainly missed his ball-carrying strengths when he went off with a knee problem.
The series is done and dusted, and Meyer can be grateful for that as without Kruger and Alberts the Boks may have struggled to win those first two games. There is nothing riding on the third Test in terms of the series, but this match will give an indication of how Meyer is able to cope with such a selection problem.
Meyer made it clear from the start of his tenure that his goal was to win every Test, and he reminded the press of the statement following Saturday’s series-clincher at Ellis Park.
At the same time, he was open about the challenges the Boks would face in the build-up to the third Test, as there are not only a number of injury concerns but also several players in need of rest following an exhausting Super Rugby season.
The Boks also need to maintain some momentum, and Meyer said he was already starting to think about combinations for the Rugby Championship which starts in mid-August. It’s no mean juggling act, and if the Boks win in Port Elizabeth to record a clean sweep it will say something of Meyer’s management ability.
Meyer was nervous ahead of this series because he wouldn’t enjoy much of a chance to coach the side, as the short-turnaround between Super Rugby and the first Test prevented it. He said on Saturday that the players deserve credit for beating England and to those who would scrutinise the performances he said there was only so much he could do with this team in the space of two weeks.
The new structures and plans for the Boks will start to come into play in the Rugby Championship, but before that tournament the Boks have a great opportunity to maintain their 100% record under Meyer and inflict further psychological damage on England.
Another win this week will take the Boks’ winning streak against England to 10, and with another Test against England looming at the end of the year, they should be looking to twist the knife.
Much will depend on how Meyer responds to the injury situation, and who he decides to rest. Meyer has done well to select a team that could win the series, and now the challenge is to select a 22 that can ram the advantage home.
If Kruger is ruled out, it could be that Franco van der Merwe, the other No 5 in the current squad, is promoted for his first cap. However, that would mean an untried second-row combination, and an inexperienced one at that. Another option is to play the same combination that finished the second Test, that is Flip van der Merwe at No 4 and Eben Etzebeth at No 5.
Injuries to Burger, Smith and Duane Vermeulen have depleted the Boks’ stocks in the blindside position. With all three of those players unavailable Meyer has turned to Alberts, and he has responded admirably. There is no one else in the current squad that can play Alberts’ role and so Meyer will be desperately hoping the robust flanker can last one more game.
The series cannot be lost, but there is still something to be gained from winning the third Test in Port Elizabeth. Good management and savvy selections will help the Boks realise their 3-0 ambition.