Shocking Springboks must break shackles

MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day newspaper column, says Heyneke Meyer’s game plan and playing philosophy is simply not good enough.

The All Blacks lacked accuracy in attack against the Wallabies, but that was all that was missing from a New Zealand display that made South Africa’s match against Argentina look like something from the Dark Ages.

If what the All Blacks produced in Auckland was high octane, then in Mendoza there was nothing more than grunt and growl. It was a shocker and the Springboks were the most shocking of the two teams.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has spoken of the need to win every weekend. He has spoken of mental toughness and the search for excellence. He has spoken of the potential greatness of players. Actions have always been more significant than words and the player actions in Mendoza, just like in Port Elizabeth in the third Test against England, were a contradiction on everything being said. The 20 minutes we saw against England in Johannesburg’s second Test was a hint of the potential within our rugby, but even that 20 minutes looks a decade ago when compared to the intensity and pace of the effort from New Zealand, the current world champions and without doubt the team setting the standards.

I thought the Australians were woeful as an attacking unit and there was no threat they’d get five points let alone a victory. They defended bravely and showed a desire for the scrap but they were simply beaten up in the collisions and given a rugby lesson.

This is a very good All Blacks team, stronger now than when they edged France to win the World Cup last October. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter will be managed carefully through to the next World Cup but the succession plan of Sam Cane and Aaron Cruden is already in motion. Very little else will change from now to 2015 so those who talk of the All Blacks being a side in decline in 2015 think again. The back three will be at their peak and so too a midfield that will include Sonny Bill Williams. The All Blacks have integrated as many players new players into the system as the Boks have. Two new locks, a new loose forward, a new scrumhalf and variations on the wing. The only position where there is no definitive answer in relation to 2015 is at hooker. They’re in a healthy position and they’re not making any excuses about World Cup hangovers, lack of desire, retirements, inexperience or players coming to terms with the demands of international rugby. They’ve set standards, especially on defence, and to keep two sides of the standing of Ireland and Australia scoreless this year is the kind of action that accompanies any talk of excellence.

The All Blacks were not precise in their attack in Auckland, but that will always be a possibility with the type of high risk, high tempo and absolutely enthralling game they play. In Auckland they offloaded in the tackle 30 times and most of the offloads were effective in advancing the play, sustaining flow, continuity and ensuring momentum. If you tuned in at 9:35am to Auckland and happened to be watching the same rugby channel 12 hours later you could excused for thinking that what was on offer from Mendoza was part of the ESPN Classic packages. My god it was awful.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, on reflection, spoke of the physicality of South Africa and Argentina, whom the All Blacks play next in Wellington. He said it was like watching two rhinos go at each other all afternoon.

His reference to rhino reminded me of former Wallabies coach Rod Macqueen’s rhino reference to the then Springbok coach Harry Viljoen. Macqueen and Viljoen are good mates and they were on a Safari outing when they saw Rhino. Macqueen said: ‘Look Harry there’s your team … big, strong and f**king dumb’.

The Boks certainly moved on from the dummy tag in 2007 thanks to the approach and thinking of some very special players, but the limited quality of player on display in Mendoza is no excuse for the kind of rugby produced.

Meyer, as coach, picks the side and determines game strategy and playing philosophy. What we saw in Port Elizabeth and Mendoza is simply not good enough, in intent, in ambition and in principle.

No player picks himself and not one Springbok in Mendoza would make a current World XV. That’s a reality but it is no excuse to draw to Argentina because no Pumas player would make a World XV either.

Mendoza should be a watershed moment for Meyer, who doesn’t want for rugby intellect but needs to be challenged to break his own shackles of conservatism.

The obvious reaction is to take fire at the players, but that would be misguided. Meyer is the one in charge and a team is a reflection of a coach. If the coach expected more of his players in Mendoza then I – like every South African rugby supporter – expected more of Meyer at this juncture.