RYAN VREDE, in London, writes Heyneke Meyer emerged from his first season in charge with many issues still needing resolution but others comprehensively solved.
The season, from a results perspective, was below par. Three defeats, two of those against the All Blacks, and two draws with inferior opposition preceded an unbeaten year-end tour which, to some, redeemed the season. It did not. Seven from 12 can’t be acceptable for a team whose stated intent is to be the best in the world for a sustained period. There is a massive gulf in quality between them and their benchmark, the All Blacks. That difference must be eroded in 2013.
It would be remiss not to note the mitigating circumstances for their disappointing return. Comparisons with the Blacks are misplaced at this point, as the world champions are a settled unit and are playing with the synergy, fluidity, tactical intelligence and composure that reflects their years together. There has been little change in coaching philosophy with the installment of Steve Hansen and continuity in leadership with Richie McCaw.
The Springboks have never enjoyed the luxury of consistently picking the same side throughout the season with injuries, many sustained by world-class players, heavily undermining their ability to do so. The lack of a central contracting system meant that many of them played nearly every minute of the Super Rugby season, while an appreciable number were involved in the latter part of the Currie Cup campaign. I watched them fade in the second half of games on their European tour and sympathised with players like Jean de Villiers, Jannie du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Zane Kirchner and Adriaan Strauss. They were well past the limit sports scientists agree on as the maximum amount of game time before rugby players become susceptible to serious injuries and/or fatigue seriously adversely affects the ability to operate at an acceptably high level.
This is likely to change in 2013, with a select group of players (my understanding is around 12) set to be centrally contracted, granting Meyer greater decision-making power over their management. However, with a deeper pool of players who have proved their aptitude in Test rugby, Meyer cannot lean on this crutch again next year.
Neither must he continue to justify the ongoing involvement of Morne Steyn, unless the flyhalf’s form shows exponential improvement in Super Rugby. Steyn was a comfort selection for Meyer at the beginning of his tenure and later became an indefensible one as his goal-kicking capitulated and his general play failed to inspire. There are superior alternatives, with Pat Lambie having pushed to the front of the queue to challenge Johan Goosen for the No 10 shirt. That duo, as well as Elton Jantjies, have proven themselves to be more than competent goal-kickers and possess a greater attacking arsenal than Steyn does.
Their attacking game plan needs to be refined as well. Don’t expect them to veer from the territory-based approach they so believe in, but there must be observable and effective layering of dimensions to certain aspects of that method. Spatial awareness and decision-making must improve drastically and there has to be greater intelligence going into and at the collision point (by this I mean attacking the space either side of a defender not routinely bulldozing him, and trying to create more offload opportunities).
The return of Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie (both unavailable for the year-end tour due to contractual obligations to their Japanese clubs) to the back division should bring with it marked improvements. Encouragingly, Jaco Taute is seen as the future at fullback, and hopefully fitness will allow Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn (who were never in the same team this year) to surround him.
I think the addition of a proven attack specialist to the coaching staff will be an astute one. He needs to have had no involvement with Meyer or the Bulls, and would need to be a strong personality and of such standing that he commands Meyer’s respect and attention. Meyer’s philosophies and tactical approach must be challenged, and such confrontation won’t come from the men currently on the coaching staff. Johann van Graan and John McFarland (Meyer’s most trusted assistants) are fine coaches, but too close to him to identify limitations in his thinking on the game.
Meyer also needs to enjoy this journey more. He looked ragged at the post-match press conference at Twickenham, telling me: ‘Every Test felt like a final’. Meyer’s identity is too intimately entwined with the result. If the team fails, he feels like a failure. Meyer has provided strong mentorship for many of this country’s finest players. Now he needs to be looked after in a similar manner. He needs to trust his plan and not see slight deviations from it as being terminal to that plan.
There is, however, a promising future. The Springboks’ defence has largely been very impressive in 2012 and this characteristic is the bedrock upon which the game’s greatest sides have built their periods of dominance. Defence coach McFarland deserves much praise here. He works tirelessly to fine-tune this discipline and is constantly searching for the one percent that will give his team an edge. The emergence of Francois Louw as a world-class openside flank has helped McFarland, but so has the sheer bulk and mongrel they’ve boasted in Willem Alberts, Eben Etzebeth, Marcell Coetzee and Duane Vermeulen.
Vermeulen has undoubtedly filled the void I believed Pierre Spies would at No 8. Vermuelen is half the athlete but double the player. His second season will be a sterner examination of his aptitude, but the signs are encouraging.
The pack as a whole have defied expectations in general and set play. Pieter de Villiers has honed them into a scrum that holds its own against the best in the game and the lineout is their potent attacking and defensive weapon.
There’s a strong base to work from in 2013. Be optimistic.