More balance but no blitz please

RYAN VREDE writes that those calling for the immediate reversion to an expansive approach have short memories.

Heyneke Meyer and his Springboks have been lambasted for their perceived tactical conservatism. There may be personnel changes for the Test against the All Blacks in Dunedin, but Meyer won’t veer from his belief in his approach. And neither should he.

Certainly there needs to be greater balance and sharper decision making on attack. In Mendoza and Perth there were occasions, particularly when presented with broken field opportunities, when they should have run instead of kicking for field position. Furthermore, the lack of imagination and precision they displayed when in the Pumas and Wallabies’ red zone was deeply disturbing. These issues need to be addressed as a matter of urgency, but to call for a complete overhaul in strategy a week before playing the world champions is laughable.

This doesn’t mean that I believe the Springboks don’t have the players to play in this manner. However, in the same way their current strategy is taking time (too much some would suggest) to take hold and become the suffocating force Meyer envisions it will be, so too would a more expansive approach. What then will the criticism be when the Boks bomb? Or will those who spit vitriol be content that they will lose beautifully?

The prime example of this came at the start of Peter de Villiers’ reign. De Villiers purposed to make the side a more entertaining one to watch through their brand of rugby. He had absolutely no appreciation for the tactical demands of Test rugby against the elite sides. The Springboks subsequently lost badly at home to New Zealand and Australia in Cape Town and Durban, before reverting to a more structured approach, one which later morphed into the same one that is being employed now. That approach won a series against the Lions and the Tri-Nations in 2009 and it featured some of the best attacking play since the Springboks’ World Cup campaign of 2007. It took a while to settle into and its success rested heavily on excellent execution. The calibre of player at De Villiers’ disposal was also central to the game plan’s effectiveness.

The Springboks will gradually move towards the accurate execution of their game plan as the players’ understanding of it grows and with the return of injured and unavailable players in the coming months. Fourie du Preez’s return for the year-end tour will be a massive boon in this regard.

The Bulls’ Super Rugby championship-winning sides of 2009 and 2010 showed the effectiveness of the strategy when it’s execution is on point. Those sides were prolific try scorers, but they took time to reach that point. Patience has never been a virtue the Springbok supporter has had in abundance. And while no Springbok coach should be granted an easy ride (I’ve written extensively that Meyer has made fundamental selection and tactical errors that are inexcusable) there needs to be some perspective on Meyer’s plight.

I understand what Meyer is trying to achieve through his game plan and selections. That doesn’t mean I agree with it unconditionally. But I’ve been fortunate to have built a good working relationship with him over the last seven years. In that time I’ve come to appreciate his tactical and technical grasp of the game. His new-age approach to studying players and how to extract the best out of them has intrigued me. His thirst for new information that can give his sides the edge – including adapting elements of play, conditioning and recruiting from other codes – is fascinating.

I’m no apologist for the man, but I believe, based on the aforementioned, as well as the quality of players emerging in South Africa, that in time he will become a highly successful Springbok coach. Whether he is allowed that time remains to be seen. The pressure from the public will mount if results and performances continue to fall short of expectations. Meyer is resilient and he’ll continue to believe the tide will turn. His bosses at Saru may not be so faithful.

For now he must resist the urge to change tact completely. Again, there is a desperate need for a move towards greater balance in their attacking play, but to abandon the foundational elements of the game plan completely makes no sense at this point. It will only serve to further weaken his side’s challenge and will undoubtedly increase the margin of the All Blacks’ victory this Saturday.

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