RYAN VREDE, writing from Dublin, says there needs to be some tempering of expectation around the quality of the Springboks’ performances, but not of the expectation of a clean sweep.
Coach Heyneke Meyer isn’t going anywhere, even if the Springboks are blanked on this tour. This will come as a disappointment to a growing number of critics. But Meyer enjoys strong support from the bulk of the men who determine his longevity in the role of head coach, most of whom are sold on his playing philosophy, his vision regarding selection and are sympathetic to his plight in light of a host of injuries to key players.
Meyer has never been able to field his first-choice side because of injuries, and is currently in a position where he is missing three highly experienced players – Bismarck du Plessis, Bryan Habana and Frans Steyn – who, when on form, would make any elite Test side. There are a clutch of other high quality players unavailable as well, further undermining Meyer’s cause, while his quest to secure the services of Japan-based players, most notably Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie, was met with a refusal by their clubs.
Meyer is particular concerned about the impotency of his backline, feeling Du Preez and Fourie (Jaco Taute would have shifted to fullback) would have added a special dimension that has been lacking throughout his tenure. His tactics have been under constant fire, but their time spent in the opposition’s 22m compares favourably with the All Blacks, the difference being how clinical the world champions have been in those positions. He choice of flyhalf will be critical to any improvements in this regard, but there needs to be observable gains in the decision-making, innovation and execution of their backline play overall.
In three mid-year Tests, the Blacks put 124 points past a better Ireland side that will front the Springboks in Dublin on Saturday, conceding just 29. It would be laughable to compare the current Springbok side to the Blacks – who I’m sure will be remembered as one of the game’s best – but it does offer us some insight into the strength of the Irish, who also lost to Wales at the Aviva Stadium, drew with France and were comprehensively beaten by England in the Six Nations.
Certainly they will be a formidable opponent in front of a capacity crowd (the Springboks have won just one of the last four matches in Dublin). However, Ireland’s quality has been depleted through the recent withdrawals of Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Rory Best, while combative openside Sean O’Brien and experienced back rower Stephen Ferris will be sorely missed. Paul O’Connell expected to lose the race to recover from injury (further expanding the leadership void). Consider also that that prop Cian Healy is struggling with his shoulder and Declan Fitzpatrick is still carrying a concussion sustained last weekend, and Ireland are there for the taking.
There will be the usual threatening rhetoric from Scotland, but surely the Springboks won’t replicate the embarrassing defeat in 2010. Scotland lost all their Six Nations matches, and while they beat Australia in torrential rain in Newcastle in June, the result was more a reflection of the Wallabies’ weakness and inconsistency, which persisted into the Rugby Championship, than it was a new dawn for Scottish rugby.
The sternest Test of the Springboks will come at Twickenham against England. They haven’t lost to Stuart Lancaster’s men in 10 Tests, including three wins in their last three outings at Twickenham, but the quality of this side doesn’t match their predecessors and their injury list is likely to be lengthier by then. They will also face a home side desperate to avenge their 2-0 June series defeat.
The Springboks have won by an average of 19 points in the aforementioned matches, but they will settle for a less emphatic margin if it means they win three from three. Despite what Meyer lacks in quality because of injuries, a tour sweep is still a realistic expectation.