Heyneke’s hope and headache

JON CARDINELLI writes that while the Springboks weren’t consistent during the three Tests against England, there were a number of reasons for Heyneke Meyer to feel encouraged.

The Boks drew 14-14 with England last Saturday, producing a performance so insipid that Meyer felt obligated to apologise to local supporters in the aftermath. It was by far the Boks’ worst showing of 2012, and it didn’t surprise me to subsequently hear the Bok players admitting that they had let their country down.

There should be disappointment and frustration following the stalemate in Port Elizabeth, but there should also be perspective. The Boks have finished the series unbeaten, and Meyer, his team and the rest of South Africa should acknowledge that a big box has been ticked.

The quality and consistency of the performances is another story. There have been some brilliant examples of team work, moments of synergy that utterly humiliated and overwhelmed England. There have also been some inspiring individual performances by rookies and veterans alike.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Boks have been guilty of what Meyer has termed ‘soft moments’, periods of play that often allowed England to stay in the contest or keep the scoreline respectable. Defensive lapses, inconsistent and inaccurate breakdown work, as well as set-piece bungles – this series has had as much of the bad as it has the good.

Accuracy at the attacking breakdowns was identified as a problem following the first Test, and a drop in intensity was blamed in the second. The third was a combination of both, and the wet weather only served to exacerbate the situation.

It is something Meyer will need to address in his preparation for the Rugby Championship. As competitive as England were at the tackle, the challenge of Australia and New Zealand will be far more aggressive. Inaccuracies will be punished, turnovers will be translated into points. The Boks can be thankful that England weren’t more clinical in this regard.

There were exceptions, Willem Alberts proving the most valuable player in the first two Tests. Be it on attack or defence, Alberts dominated the collisions. He will be an important player in the Rugby Championship, and Meyer will also hope that Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen fully recover from injuries to ensure the Boks have some depth in that important No 7 position.

Juandré Kruger was asked to play the role of lineout manager in just his first series for South Africa, and did well considering the situation. It is hoped that a more experienced player like Andries Bekker will be available for the Rugby Championship, but what the England series did was provide Kruger with international exposure. Considering Bekker’s track record with injury, it also may not be long before Kruger is called on again.

His second-row partner Eben Etzebeth was one of the success stories, and should be another key player for the Boks later this year. Marcell Coetzee was not always technically sound at the tackle, but his work-rate was impressive and he will remain in the loose-forward mix.

In the backs, Frans Steyn did exactly what was asked of him in that inside centre channel. He will be expected to contribute more with the boot and play with more variation in the Rugby Championship, but what was clear in the England series was that the physicality he offers as a No 12 forces the opposition to explore other avenues of attack.

Jean de Villiers was rightly appointed captain and has been rightly retained in the position for the remainder of the year. He has thrived at outside centre and complemented Steyn in midfield. That combination has proved so important to the Boks’ strive for gainline ascendancy.

Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen have rediscovered the form that made them the outstanding wingers of the 2007 World Cup. The all-round contributions of these players has vindicated Meyer’s faith in them, and they certainly fit into a territory-based game plan where the kick-chase is paramount.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the halfbacks, as Francois Hougaard and Morné Steyn were disappointingly inconsistent. It is a concern, especially in the tactical-kicking department, where Hougaard has struggled with his accuracy.

Steyn has the tactical boot to enhance Meyer’s game plan, but he desperately needs to address his goal-kicking problems. He was wayward in Durban and Johannesburg, and missed three goal-attempts (four if you count the wayward drop kick) in Port Elizabeth. Clashes between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are often decided by a few points, and accurate goal-kicking can be the difference.

It was clear in the series against England that Meyer’s game plan, when correctly and accurately implemented, can bring the Boks results. The Boks will get together a bit earlier for the Rugby Championship than they did for the England series, and that should help them build more synergy before the start of that tournament.

But for the individuals who are hoping to overcome technical issues, the next few weeks of Super Rugby are massively important in the context of the Test season.

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