Hard education for Meyer

RYAN VREDE writes that the Springboks’ Rugby Championship campaign left Heyneke Meyer with more questions than answers.

Meyer has been consistent in his view that he will have a clearer idea about the players he can take forward and those that don’t meet his expectations after the completion of the southern hemisphere showpiece. He has also explained that his opponents, the best in the game, would expose flaws in his tactical philosophy, and that he would make adjustments accordingly.

He would have hoped that process would be less complicated than it now will be, but Meyer has to be decisive in light of his team’s inconsistent showings, which saw them finish 14 points adrift of the All Blacks, and well behind them in all of the most important aspects of their play.

He admitted that dropping Morne Steyn was one of the hardest decisions he has had to make in his short time as coach. But it was the right one in light of the flyhalf’s chronic struggles. His replacement Johan Goosen impressed in short cameos off the bench in Australasia and was good as a starter against Australia at Loftus. But his goalkicking, so good in Super Rugby, lacked accuracy, while his weak tactical kicking game, a deficiency exposed against the All Blacks in Soweto, wouldn’t have filled Meyer with confidence ahead of the northern hemisphere tour. I wouldn’t be surprised if Meyer reverts to Steyn for the three-Test tour, using Goosen as an impact player.

Fourie du Preez is in the closing stages of negotiations with his Japanese club Suntory Goliath which would allow him to be available in the Test windows. This would ease the pressure on whoever Meyer opts for at flyhalf for the year-end tour. Du Preez’s value is unquestionable, and his potential return will also be crucial in building depth in quality in one of the Springboks’ most crucial positions (in the context of their game plan).

Meyer lacks a commanding presence at No 5 lock, with Andries Bekker continuing to struggle for consistency. I wrote after his self-confessed nightmare in Mendoza that there needed to be an investment in him because there just aren’t any better alternatives in South Africa or abroad. I still feel that way. Bekker, however, has to deliver with greater consistency and authority.

There continues to be legitimate questions around Zane Kirchner’s retention, many believing Pat Lambie to be a better long-term alternative. Francois Hougaard, having been deployed as a wing after failing to meet Meyer’s expectations as a Test scrumhalf, has yet to exhibit the form in the position he did for the Bulls between 2009 and 2011. JP Pietersen’s return to fitness will see him take Hougaard’s spot in the starting line-up for the November Tests. There are players with greater utility value available to Meyer as impact options, bringing into question Hougaard’s prospects of making the match 22 (with either Pienaar or Du Preez covering scrumhalf on the wood).

Viewing the Springboks more broadly, Meyer has endured heavy criticism for his perceived attacking conservatism. Their method won’t alter dramatically in the coming years, with Meyer hoping the execution thereof becomes slicker. There are, however, fundamental flaws that need to be addressed, most notably their predictability at the gainline (i.e a lack of variation in terms of runners in support and the angles of those attacks). There also needs to be a greater level of precision and innovation in the opposition’s 22m. The Springboks created numerous scoring opportunities throughout their Rugby Championship campaign, but failed to convert a large percentage of those.

Defensively they were average, with too many of what Meyer deemed ‘soft moments’. This is the bedrock upon which the best teams in the game have built their success and it must be the hallmark of this Springboks side.

There are undoubtedly positives, with a young pack largely fronting well, the emergence of a clutch of gifted rookies and Bryan Habana nearing his best form. Those things stir optimism.

Meyer has said from the outset that the first year would be his toughest. I doubt he expected it to be as testing as it has been. There are mitigating circumstances for him, injuries to key senior players the most notable of those. But his side cannot regress from this point.