Five matches into his tenure as Springbok coach and the knives are out for Heyneke Meyer. A dour draw against Argentina in Mendoza on Saturday sparked calls for a radical overhaul of the squad and a move away from a conservative gameplan.
The muttering started when Meyer turned to a Bulls-heavy squad for the three-Test series against England in June, and the malcontent spiked after the All Blacks whitewashed Australia in Auckland on Saturday while the hapless Boks were held to a 16-16 stalemate.
Disillusioned Springbok fans have been quick to point out a number of players who do not deserve to be in the team - notably Jacques Potgieter, Morné Steyn and Francois Hougaard.
But Meyer fanned the flames of public discontent on Monday, with the announcement that he will be retaining the bulk of the team that flopped against Argentina for the Australasian leg of the Rugby Championship.
“It is easy to throw players out and pick new ones, but that is not coaching, that is picking,” he told reporters. “I have been in this position a few times during my career as a coach and the easiest thing to do is just drop players - but that will not move the Springboks forward.”
The former Bulls mentor then lamented his side’s lack of experience which played a crucial role in the below-par performance in Mendoza.
“I knew it would be very tough in my first year with the Springboks because of the inexperience of the team, and a lot of them were playing their first Test away from home,” he said.
“Our performance in Argentina was not good enough, it was unacceptable and I was very disappointed, but people underestimate the Pumas - virtually their whole team plays in Europe and they are very experienced.
“We have already lost a lot of leadership and then you would be throwing out what little experience you have got,” Meyer said in answering critics calling for widescale changes to the team. Meyer has a point.
His hand has been forced by an exodus of veteran players to overseas markets, retirements and injuries to stalwarts such as JP Pietersen and Bismarck du Plessis.
By contrast, Steve Hansen inherited an All Blacks team that had been prepared for life after last year’s Rugby World Cup - 13 of the 22 All Blacks who took part in the World Cup final did battle against Australia on Saturday - while Meyer has had to make do with the shell of the team left over from the Peter de Villiers era.
For South Africa, just seven of the matchday 22 from the World Cup quarter-final against Australia in Wellington were in Mendoza .
Meyer has indeed made some questionable selections - opting for Potgieter’s bravado instead of Heinrich Brüssow’s experience and scavenging nous during the England series.
However, the belief that the coach wants a team of bashers and crashers is unfounded. Meyer laid a similar conservative foundation with the Bulls in 2000. He was criticised for unimaginative tactics then, but the Bulls steadily evolved over the ensuing seasons, growing their game as they swept contenders aside to win multiple Currie Cups and Super Rugby titles.
In the 2009 Super 14 final, the Bulls unleashed a prolific attack to score eight tries in a 61-17 thrashing of the second-placed Chiefs.
Meyer’s hands are effectively tied in terms of selection (he names the touring squad today) and axing the experienced players now, in an all-or-nothing bid to beat Australia next week, would jeopardise the long-term stability of this team for a short-term fix.