Stepping stones

Heyneke Meyer has put everything in place from which to launch the Springboks to the next level in the next two years.

Let’s forget about the No 1 world rugby ranking for now. Let’s forget about the pursuit of the No 1 ranking. Let’s also for once forget about the All Blacks.

Let’s talk purely the Springboks and Heyneke Meyer’s two-year tenure.

It’s been good. On occasion it’s been very good.

His player identification has been very good. His consistency in selection has been very good and his results, a winning percentage near 70, have been very good.

Springbok rugby is in a healthy state – as healthy as it has ever been in the professional era.

Meyer has declared he will continue to select the best South Africans to play for the Springboks. His faith in overseas-based players has been criticised, but there is seldom criticism when the offshore players influence a positive result.

One tends to hear all the pearls of wisdom (espousing the virtues of locally-based players) only when the overseas-based player performs indifferently.

Meyer was condemned for bringing back scrumhalf Fourie du Preez from Japan. The ignorant among his critics asked what the motivation was for the locally-based player. They asked what reward there was for the second best player who played in South Africa’s domestic competitions?

Meyer didn’t respond by way of prose because the most emphatic response was by way of selection. Meyer picks whom he considers the best – and that is the way it should always be when it comes to the national squad.

His predecessors didn’t always have this luxury. Those Springbok coaches who have fought the game’s national administration during their tenures had restrictions on foreign-based players. They also had far greater pressure to pick black players, even if they were not merit selections.

Meyer is the first Springbok coach post isolation who has been allowed to, publicly at least, select those players he deems good enough to win Test matches and those he believes to be capable, as individuals and a group, to win back the World Cup in England in 2015.

Meyer’s great strength in his first two years is that he hasn’t often mentioned the World Cup as a motivation or an excuse. He hasn’t experimented with a bunch of kids, in the misguided notion that he was building for a World Cup. Meyer has picked a team to win Test matches and his philosophy has always been that a winning habit makes for a better World Cup campaign.

The Bok coach has acknowledged the World Cup is the pinnacle of every player and national coach. He has also maintained that five teams are good enough to win the tournament and that once a team gets into the final four, it becomes a lottery. One moment of genius can win the World Cup and one poor decision can lose a team the World Cup.

Meyer, and for this every South African rugby supporter should be grateful, has not sacrificed the occasion that translates into 50-odd Tests in between World Cups for the hope of winning a six-week tournament every four years.

Meyer’s squad, pre the November internationals, had the third best Springbok winning percentage in the professional era. Kitch Christie’s return was 100% in 14 Tests, and a gold medal at the 1995 World Cup. Nick Mallett’s return was 71% in 38 Tests, a Tri-Nations title and a bronze medal at the 1999 World Cup. Jake White’s return was 67%, in 54 Tests, a Tri-Nations title and a gold medal at the 2007 World Cup. They have been the two most successful Springbok coaches in the professional era.

Meyer’s Boks, post the tour, have now won 19 in 26. That’s 73 percent. But for the two draws, which could have been two wins if you are being charitable, that would have taken him into the 80 percent winning return. Historically, over 100 years, the Boks have won 63 percent of their games.

Meyer’s Springbok graph has improved at a steady pace. The occasional spike has had us dreaming that this squad could be the most special Springboks in the professional era but the struggles in a handful of matches have also reminded us that there is a difference between a very good and great side.
The Boks currently are a very good side.

Meyer has been true to his philosophy of building a winning Bok team. He has integrated youngsters with hardened veterans and refused to sacrifice experience simply for the sake of it.

What I like most about the Bok coach is that he accepts he is the one who will be fired if results aren’t favourable.

Meyer understands there will be no loyalty from the rugby administration if he picks the team the politicians want and it fails. He also knows there will be no sympathy from the rugby media and rugby public if he picks the team they want and it fails.

Meyer is the Bok coach. It is his responsibility to select and coach a team capable of winning and being in a position to win big tournaments. If he succeeds he is only doing his job. If he fails there is a qualified bunch queueing for a crack at making the Springboks the best team in the world.

Mallett and White were the two best Springbok coaches and it is no coincidence that White and Meyer, as young coaches, were part of Mallett’s Springbok coaching staff.

South Africa has always had South African coaches good enough to make the Springboks the best. The failure has been more the refusal to invest in these coaches over a period of time The intellectual capital of Mallett, White and Meyer (combined) would add an even greater threat to the Springboks’ potency but in a sport driven by politics, egos and agenda this isn’t likely to happen.

What is encouraging is that all three share an opinion on the core of the Springbok squad. White identified a group of players in 2004 that still form the heart of the Springbok challenge. White’s successor, Peter de Villiers, retained this group and Meyer has also invested in the many veterans who were the pulse of the 2007 World Cup win and the 2009 British & Irish Lions series win and Tri-Nations champions.

The backline that started against Wales in November was exactly that same one that started the World Cup quarter-final against Australia in New Zealand in 2011 and very similar to the one which started the winning World Cup final against England in 2007.

White, in 2007, felt many of those who won the World Cup were good enough to play in another two World Cups if managed correctly. He is proving spot on with his assessment.

Meyer, in his first season, was bold to pick a very young pack and develop them into a hardened Test unit over 18 months.

Forward play is Meyer’s strength and I don’t think he has been given enough credit for the risk he took in his first season to blood new locks, new loose forwards and new props.

He then started introducing a sprinkling of new backs, but in critical areas. Meyer resisted going with some of the overseas veterans in his first year in charge. It was a calculated risk but it was a necessary one in building a squad that was more powerful than a starting XV.

Squad strength wins the big Test matches and it determines the success of World Cup campaigns.
Meyer has a pecking order of one to three in nearly every position and the next two years will be fine-tuning the pecking order more than filling up that order.

There is a lot of competition for certain places within the pecking order, and that’s what makes the Bok situation so healthy.

Meyer was honest in his assessments after the first 18 months. JJ Engelbrecht, as an outside centre, had not made the breakthrough. So he recalled Jaque Fourie from Japan. No scrumhalf had demanded a start every Saturday so he turned to Du Preez.

The No 5 lock position has been troublesome, with Flip van der Merwe providing bulk but not mobility and Juandre Kruger delivering the odd cameo but no consistency. Meyer’s response was to coax Victor Matfield out of retirement.

Matfield will play in the 2014 Super Rugby tournament and only then will a call be made on whether he can make a contribution to the Bok squad dynamic.

I keep on emphasising the word squad because it is my experience that too often in South African rugby we think in terms of a starting XV.

Lock Eben Etzebeth has been colossal, but what happens if his knee goes? Meyer has the option of Toulon-based veteran Bakkies Botha, who he included in his November touring squad.

Meyer’s preferred match 23 has taken shape but the strength of Meyer’s selection and the potential of the Boks is in the players who are not in the match 23 but very much on Meyer’s radar.

Frans Steyn, if fit, will feature again. Matfield’s comeback, if successful, will get national reward and Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha and possibly a rejuvenated Juan Smith are likely to be added as loose-forward cover.

No other nation has the depth among loose forwards and none has a scrumhalf as good as Du Preez or two hookers as imposing as Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss.

But there are still questions that need answering. The Coenie Oosthuizen tighthead experiment, despite encouragement against France, has stalled more than soared. The gap between Du Preez, at No 9, and the next best is uncomfortable in proportion, No 5 lock is not settled and the biggest debate, as always in Springbok rugby, is always about who wears the No 10 jersey.

Meyer, at the end of November 2013, is more settled and more at ease than he was a year ago. In two years he has built a very good Springbok squad and the challenge in the next two is for the very good to be recognised as a great one.