Heyneke Meyer says while tactical advances are being made, it is mental toughness that will be at the heart of the Springboks’ success in the Rugby Championship.
Meyer has selected, and, in some cases, been forced to opt for youth in the absence of experience. Furthermore, there are others who are seasoned Super Rugby players, but who are in the infancy of their Test careers. The likes of Eben Etzebeth and Marcell Coetzee responded superbly against England in June, while the aptitude of others will be established in the more demanding environment of the Rugby Championship.
An extended Super Rugby programme and the Sharks’ progression to the final meant Meyer has had precious little time with his squads. Training camps have aided his cause to educate players about his tactical philosophies, and the week past further served that purpose. Meyer says the players have a greater understanding of and appreciation for those philosophies, but, tellingly, stressed the importance of mental strength more than tactical astuteness.
‘I don’t think there’ll be much to pick between the sides tactically. The difference in the tightest matches is going to be mental,’ he told keo.co.za. ‘It’s not true that the team who wants it more wins. It’s the team that can handle pressure. New Zealand have the edge there because of their continuity in coaching staff and players. How we respond under pressure will be our biggest test.’
Meyer added that the blow-torch examination of his players, particularly the rookies, will be illuminating and assist in his future planning and selection.
‘We’ll know exactly where we stand with the youngsters after this tournament. But the 20 and 21-year-olds we have are mentally tough. All they need now is experience,’ he said.
‘It’s difficult in the national team to do the repetition needed to really improve mental toughness, but we put in a couple of hard sessions last week and I saw the guys who are coming through. We’re making strides on that side, but it takes time. It will be great to see how the youngsters respond away from home because that is where their character will be tested.’
The immediate focus is of course on debutants Argentina, whom the Springboks face at Newlands on Saturday. Meyer and his technical team have nearly completed their analysis, which is pointing towards a testing shift for the forwards.
‘Their players have a similar mentality to South African and European teams, who are generally good at the set phases and are particularly strong at mauling,’ he said. ‘They will also be similar to England in terms of their strength at the pick and go. They also punish you for your mistakes. Their win against France in June was a prime example of this.
‘We have to make a big step up from what we produced against England to beat them, particularly defensively. There’s been a concerted drive to improve fitness levels because that is central to defensive success.’
Asked what he felt Graham Henry’s influence would be on the Pumas, Meyer offered: ‘He will have added to their mental preparation and professionalism, but they’ll stick to their strengths tactically. One thing he would have worked on is their tactical kicks and I foresee them using Juan Martin Hernandez to put through little grubbers. So there will be slight tweaks, but you don’t change your style completely overnight.’
Meanwhile, there was encouraging news on the injury front. Eben Etzebeth’s ankle injury responded well in training on Monday, although he was excluded from the second half of the session as a precaution. He will be assessed tomorrow before a call is made on his availability.
Keegan Daniel was bitten by a spider on his arm and has been treated for stiffness and swelling but is expected to recover. Chiliboy Ralepelle trained fully and is available for selection, although he isn’t likely to feature.
Meyer and Roberts both gave the impression they weren’t fully confident about the fitness of lock Andries Bekker, who has been nursing a chronic back injury. Roberts said he was on a tailored programme to counteract the effects of the injury. Meyer intimated that he would start if fit.
By Ryan Vrede, in Cape Town