Turning adventure into torture – why?

MARK KEOHANE writes Sunday will follow Saturday, regardless of whether the Springboks win or lose against the All Blacks in Dunedin. Which makes the conservatism and approach of the Bok management that much more baffling.

I could understand a coach refusing to change in his fourth year, a few months out from a World Cup. I could understand a coach refusing to change a winning formula, if his team was consistently winning and setting the standards. I can’t understand the absolutes associated with Heyneke Meyer and his Springboks in his first season in charge.

Meyer is going nowhere unless by his own accord. But his refusal to recognize, alternatively acknowledge restrictions in the Springboks’ first six Tests is making his life a lot more complicated than it has to be. There is pressure on Meyer, as there will be on any Springbok coach, but Meyer has turned up the heat himself in his response to successive indifferent Bok performances against Argentina in Mendoza and Australia in Perth.

The Bok coach has insisted that it is not his team’s tactical approach or the game plan that has counted against the Boks, but instead has focused on poor execution as being more definitive.

I disagree totally because the approach evident since the drawn third Test against England in Port Elizabeth has been one-dimensional, predictable and hugely unsuccessful because by and large the Boks’ pack has not fashioned a dominance which allows for a purely percentage based game.

There can never be a guarantee at Test level of forward dominance because of the relatively similar strengths of the top five teams, and the better teams often have to rely on winning with little ball possession. It is here where South Africa has shown no threat. In Mendoza they were just awful. In Perth when they had an initial edge up front, the kicking game proved effective. The moment they lost that momentum they looked clueless and ironically when they went behind late in the game after leading 13-3 after 30 minutes they finally produced their most inventive period of play.

Johan Goosen, at flyhalf, was very instrumental to this ball movement, largely because he takes the ball at pace, is prepared to stand flat on attack and will take contact. He is the complete opposite of Morne Steyn, who just doesn’t play that way. For Steyn to be successful the Bok pack has to be decidedly better than the opposition. A few years ago they were when blessed with Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Bismarck du Plessis, John Smit, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Danie Rossouw and the like. And then there was the massive influence of the world’s best scrumhalf Fourie du Preez on his inside.

Du Preez’s tactical kicking is unrivaled among scrumhalves and the Boks have had neither Du Preez’s kicking game nor his appreciation of game management this season. Meyer is hopeful Du Preez will return to international rugby by the end of the year or at the latest in 2013.

Steyn, in isolation, is not the Boks’ current problem, but currently he is also not the genie in the bottle. The Bok forwards in Port Elizabeth a year ago gave the All Blacks a touch up, had every advantage in the collisions and forced the Kiwis into errors and created the opportunities for Steyn to have five penalty kicks at goal and favourable go forward ball from which to also land a drop goal.

Steyn in Port Elizabeth enjoyed a pack in fiercely dominant mood. But for brief periods in the first two Tests against England the Bok pack has competed at best or been outplayed.

Until the pack improves Steyn will be a non-factor at flyhalf, as will the outside backs as a unit.

What I don’t buy is that while Meyer tries to find a forward unit capable of this dominance there is no flexibility in finding alternative ways of dominance. It is also nonsense that a 20 year-old (read Goosen) can’t start against the All Blacks in Dunedin. If he isn’t good enough to start then he shouldn’t be in the match 22 because there is no guarantee he isn’t required a minute into the Test because of injury.

I have read comparisons being made with Gaffie du Toit’s nightmare in Dunedin and a fear of things going the same way for Goosen. Nonsense. Du Toit had already played for the Boks in the home series win against Ireland. The Bok coach of the time Nick Mallett appreciated Du Toit’s natural ability but from the outset had concerns about the mental resolve of the player. He had to play him in Dunedin to get an answer.

Goosen’s mental resolve has never been questioned. He went from school rugby to Currie Cup to Super Rugby with no issues. And his Test debut of nine minutes showed huge promise and he showed comforting composure.

I would have not hesitated to give him a start. What an experience for the player. Saturday is not a World Cup final or the decider of this year’s Castle Rugby Championship. Why can’t there be supposed risk? What is there to lose?

Steyn has played 40 Tests, including a World Cup in New Zealand and Test matches against the All Blacks in New Zealand. Meyer knows what he has in Steyn and by entrusting an alternative in Goosen or Lambie all he would have done is see if there is a Plan B or additional depth at No 10. Now he won’t know until the next visit to New Zealand in a year. That is what has been so damn frustrating about the unwillingness to view an alternative. If he had picked Goosen or Lambie and it hadn’t worked out, then he reverts to the man who has played 40 Tests.

Meyer remains committed to Steyn, espouses the virtues of the player and defends how well Steyn is playing, but that is also nonsense. Steyn’s goalkicking accuracy is 63 percent in the last six Tests, and Meyer would not have allowed Goosen, Lambie or Elton Jantjies six successive Tests with such a return.

And it is here where Meyer is doing himself no favours because you can’t defend 63 percent, when the player’s primary asset has been his ability to kick at 85 percent.

The issue though is not as simple as select or drop Morne Steyn and I am not saying get rid of Morne Steyn, but look beyond him as the depth of the squad is built. The key to any successful team is depth in the number of players capable of playing Test rugby.

Why this absolute anxiousness from Meyer and within the Bok set up? As much as I hate the emphasis put on the World Cup it is a reality of the sport and the game works in four year cycles. If ever a coach has a luxury it is in the first year post the World Cup when so many players have retired or moved abroad and made themselves unavailable for Test selection. Meyer, in this first year, is treating it as if the World Cup is played in a few months and any window for exploring variables is gone.

I use the word explore and not experiment because there is nothing with which to experiment. The players are known quantities and so no international coach is working with the unknown.

Saturday in Dunedin offered so much promise because Meyer could have turned the week into an exciting one with the prospect of so many possibilities. And he could have done it in a way where no expectation was created either. He could have focused on the chance given to new kids and the growth they’ll get out of 80 minutes of playing the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Instead he has put World Cup-final like pressure on Steyn to save his career and he has turned a Test match into a life or death situation. Why? It never had to come to this. If Steyn fails then it is hard to see how Meyer can’t drop him. And given the strength of the Bok pack I don’t see how Steyn can succeed, given that his type of flyhalf play needs a pack that is dominant.

A more enlightened approach would have allowed for this week to be one of adventure and not torture.

The psychology of it all seems so wrong when it wasn’t particularly complicated to get it right.