RYAN VREDE reports on a deeply disheartening 21-11 Springboks defeat to the All Blacks in which Morne Steyn surely kicked his way into the Test wilderness.
Heyneke Meyer’s painful education as a Test coach continues. Tonight’s lesson was in accountability for selections and it was a harsh one. Meyer didn’t swing Steyn’s rudderless boot, which pushed four crucial goal kicks wide. But he did put him in a position to take those kicks when there were alternatives, one of which, Johan Goosen, embarrassed the incumbent by landing a 50m penalty and nearly sinking a near on 60m effort. Yet it wasn’t only his goal-kicking which vexed. So far was he in the pocket for most of the match that he may as well have been back in Pretoria.
Then there was the mistimed introduction of Dean Greyling, the prop whose inadequacies at Super Rugby level made his initial selection to the squad perplexing. Greyling would further entrench the widely-held perception of Springboks players as thugs with a cowardly forearm smash on Richie McCaw. Then he coughed the ball up with the tryline beckoning in the dying minutes and conceded a string of penalties. He must be heavily punished for his assault on McCaw and never see a Springboks shirt again.
There were others who failed – his beloved Zane Kirchner didn’t inspire once more, hooker Adriaan Strauss looked like a tanked up darts player, Juandre Kruger had no presence at the lineouts.
Where there positives? Perhaps. The forwards were outstanding in the tight exchanges on attack, setting a platform. But it was one that was never exploited thanks to a now chronic lack of attacking imagination. Defenders are seen as targets for rampaging Springboks carriers. Over and not around seems to be the law. The Blacks attack space so well and consistently free their hands to look for an offload opportunity. These things can be coached. The Springboks have the players with the capacity to play this way. That they are reduced to brainless machines that show no ability or desire to veer from a directive doesn’t bode well for the future.
On review they will primarily lament a butchered 7th minute opportunity and Steyn’s poor goal-kicking. The former was particularly frustrating in light of how few clear scoring chances they create. This one could not have been clearer, with Bryan Habana free on the wing. But passer and recipient lacked composure. Habana would, however, later score a try that was a throwback to his best form – break, chip, collect, brilliant.
Outside of the Blacks’ try that was birthed from a poor box kick, the Springboks were undoubtedly the better side for the first half – dominant in the forwards, competitive at the breakdown, sharp to loose balls and desperate on defence. They rumbled and roared through the heavies, driving into good field positions and forcing a string of penalties.
Here was the much-maligned Steyn’s opportunity to repay and justify the faith Meyer had showed in him in the face of severe criticism. Kicking all the points against the Blacks in Port Elizabeth in 2011, Steyn had saved his Test career. It was ironic that his kicking effort tonight, the primary strength of his game, would almost certainly end it, or, at very least, cease it until he rediscovers his form of 2009. There is no strong argument Meyer can mount for his retention. His time is up.
The Springboks trailed 5-3 at the break, but should have lead comfortably. Yet, for all their endevour, nothing about this game was unexpected. The Springboks were always going live with these Blacks for 60 minutes. The final quarter was always going to be the decisive period of the match.
The Blacks grabbed the initiative through a soft Aaron Smith try. Greyling should have been defending the fringe yet was caught in the backline. He further undermined the Springboks’ cause five minutes later when he stupidly, inexplicably, nailed McCaw, who was not involved in play. Idiocy appeared to have found it’s home in Greyling.
To their credit the Springboks redoubled their efforts, but the Blacks grew in confidence and while they never looked fluid on attack, they certainly had the measure of the predictable Springboks on defence.
There were opportunities to cause an upset, but those were squandered. Oh what could have been. This Blacks side is not the force they have been made out to be. They were there for the taking. Meyer’s education continues, but he cannot keep failing examinations through faults of his own.