Plenty for Meyer to ponder

JON CARDINELLI writes that while the Springboks made significant strides as a defensive unit in Europe, their attacking and kicking execution was well below standard.

The Boks have succeeded as far as they have obtained results. A three-from-three return has seen them finishing the season with a record of seven wins in 12 Tests, and the No 2 ranking in the world.

The stats make for encouraging if not completely satisfying reading, but then another stat will evoke the necessary sense of perspective.

The All Blacks are No 1 in the world, nearly six rankings points clear of the second-placed Boks. They’ve already swept aside three opponents on their current tour of Europe, averaging 42 points a game.

They are likely to beat England this weekend, and following that their tour will be hailed as a success both in terms of development and results.

The Boks ticked one of these boxes recently, but did they check the other? I would argue that certain individuals have impressed on this tour, as have specific areas of the Bok game, but what has also been evident is a lack of progress in other key departments. Take the results out of the equation, and it’s a real mixed bag.

Let’s start with the positives. The loose forwards have been immense on this tour, with Willem Alberts living up to the hype generated by Meyer himself earlier in the 2012 season. Francois Louw has lent the Boks a game breaking defensive quality at the breakdown, while Duane Vermeulen is the other very significant piece to the back-row puzzle.

Meyer is in a good position knowing that Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies should all be fit by June next year. But at this point, you’d have to say that Louw, Alberts and Vermeulen have taken their opportunity as far as establishing a well-balanced combination is concerned. Burger and Smith are particularly good players, but they are going to need to win back their starting positions via a strong showing in the 2013 Super Rugby competition.

A much improved Bok lineout was the preferred launchpad on the recent tour to Europe. The maul proved highly effective, and the lineout itself provided the team with some terrific attacking ball. It was unfortunate that this Bok side could not exploit such dominance by maintain their attacking momentum beyond two or three phases.

Adriaan Strauss and Eben Etzebeth completed outstanding breakout Test seasons with some influential performances at the lineout and collisions. Strauss complemented Louw and Vermeulen with his breakdown prowess, while Etzebeth starred through his contesting at the lineout and aggression on defence.

Where the Bok forwards have struggled for consistency is at the attacking breakdowns and at the scrum. These are just two of the reasons why the attack has failed to function.

Meyer and his skipper Jean de Villiers are right to say this tour has witnessed a significant growth in the defensive department. However, it should be noted that the Boks were guilty of putting themselves under defensive pressure over the course of the three matches. Through a misfiring attack and an inconsistent tactical kicking display, they have spent more time tackling than they would have intended.

It was a masterstroke bringing Ulster scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar back into the mix, and he should play a big role as a decision maker and tactician in the year to come. Unfortunately, Pienaar had a bad game against England, and this in turn placed undue pressure on the rest of the team. Pat Lambie struggled to assert himself with the tactical boot, and overall the Boks lost the territorial battle.

On the eve of the tour, I wrote that it would be a defining one for Lambie. I said that Meyer needed to back him in all three matches, and that after an extended run the Bok coach would have a clearer idea of Lambie’s potential in that pivot position.

Lambie started all three matches at flyhalf, and while he wasn’t always consistent, he still made some big contributions.

In difficult conditions at Twickenham, he battled to control the game and was guilty of some very basic errors, and yet, there were also several instances where he booted the Boks into good positions.

He also allayed fears related to the Boks’ goal-kicking form (they had averaged just 51% prior to this tour) with a perfect display at a stormy Twickenham. That cannot be downplayed in a Test where the Boks won by a single point.

For all of that, I would be surprised if Meyer declared Lambie’s tour a complete success. He has done enough to ensure that the period of assessment will be extended into next year, and yet, there is much to sharpen.

The inconsistencies up front may have compromised the efficiency of the backline, but there were more than a few instances on the past tour where the backs failed to make the most of their attacking opportunities.

This is something that Meyer needs to address in the coming months. Injuries have prevented much continuity in selection, but that back division hasn’t played with any discernible freedom or confidence, and that has led to too many missed scoring chances.

This tour has underlined why the Boks are well behind the All Blacks in the rankings, and why they may continue to struggle in the elite clashes (read against Australia and New Zealand) in 2013.

The kicking game requires attention as does the Boks’ inability to finish try-scoring opportunities once they’ve attained the necessary field position. They may have finished the year with three wins, but they are not yet operating at a level where they can challenge for the No 1 spot.

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