MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly column for Business Day, writes the anger Heyneke Meyer will feel this morning is that a new group of Springboks mentally couldn’t front for a Test match because a three-Test series against England had already been won.
The Springboks never had the mongrel to beat an opponent that – by rights of a season that has been going since the 2011 World Cup last September – should have been the disinterested and reluctant participant.
England’s players had the appetite for Test rugby in Port Elizabeth. They had the collective will to play for 80 minutes, motivated by a first win against the Boks in 10 starts.
That they didn’t get the win was because they were not good enough to put away a Bok team whose forwards were ordinary in what they produced as a unit and who individually offered very little intent in the collisions.
The Springboks, when dismissed as pretenders, invariably always rise to the occasion and find the extraordinary in ambition, persistence and resistance, but in 20 years of writing about South African rugby’s elite the one consistency is that when the players believe there’s nothing at stake there’s never quite the same urgency.
Springbok midweek teams, so many of them a collection of outstanding players, often played like a bunch of clueless club players and rarely produced performances worthy of their provincial pedigree.
Watching the Boks in Port Elizabeth was like watching a midweek Bok team with individual ambition but not collective hunger or cohesion.
Attitude is everything in Test rugby because with attitude comes intensity, confrontation and refusal to be beaten in the collisions.
We saw it with the All Blacks against Ireland in Christchurch a fortnight ago. Mentally they lacked the urgency because of a disregard of Ireland’s challenge and they nearly lost.
Not so in Hamilton where they apologised with the most emphatic performance in humiliating Ireland 60-0.
It was not the nine tries that spoke of New Zealand’s ambition and desire for sustained excellence. It was the refusal to give Ireland any consolation in the final minutes of the Test – a passage of play that saw All Blacks captain Richie McCaw chase down an Irishman with the urgency of a man whose team was defending a one point lead. Instead the All Blacks, 2-0 up in the three-Test series, were leading by 60 points.
McCaw, who as captain of the All Blacks, has won everything and lost just 12 of 106 Tests, was a man possessed in Hamilton, such was his embarrassment that the All Blacks had let themselves down in Christchurch.
McCaw’s attitude epitomised why the All Blacks are the only team in the world with an 80 percent winning record in the professional era. There is no such thing as a meaningless Test. He defended his tryline in a supposed dead rubber (with his team leading by 60 points) with the same conviction he did in last year’s World Cup final.
Meyer, if you asked him what he covets most as Bok coach, will tell you that every South African player understands the importance of every Test match – not just the ones at the World Cup.
The Bok coach has said he knows his team will lose matches, but he will only accept defeat when he knows his players were not good enough to win; not because it wasn’t important to win.
The mentality in South African rugby for too long has been that it is okay to deliver mediocrity as long as it does not happen at the World Cup or in a series decider.
In Port Elizabeth the Boks showed Meyer that the fight within his own camp to change this mentality will be his greatest challenge.
No Bok player ever wants to lose and there wasn’t a lack of individual commitment in Port Elizabeth. There just wasn’t the bloody mindedness you would have seen had this been the series decider.
The usual clichés of inexperience, human error in decision-making and a failure to adapt to the wind and rain were offered as mitigating factors, if never as an excuse.
Don’t believe any of it and don’t believe the purple prose so willingly offered in respect of England’s performance.
The visitors had determination, desire and enthusiasm, but they didn’t play particularly well. A team with greater attacking pedigree would have embarrassed the Boks and would have won comfortably.
South Africa’s determination and refusal to be beaten at home has historically masked the limitations of many a Bok team, but the greatest positive for Meyer is that nothing was masked in Port Elizabeth.
Some of those who wore green on Saturday are not good enough to wear it with the necessary authority if the Boks are to consistently be among the game’s best and the Boks will never reach the consistent level of winning that Meyer so desires if they can’t reach a consistent level of attitude the players need take to every Test.
It was a poor result for the Boks but it was also a very necessary one because it will force Meyer to acknowledge that he has players who talk about consistently being number one but he doesn’t yet have a group who plays with the belief and conviction every Saturday to be number one.