Johannesburg - Refreshing, exciting and possibly even a little daring - who would have thought Heyneke Meyer was a gambling man, unafraid of stepping out of his comfort zone.
The Springbok coach has always been perceived as being slightly conservative - his Bulls teams were branded too forwards-based and one-dimensional, even though massively successful - but as Bok boss Meyer has led the chorus for expansive, attack-based rugby, something which has paid handsome dividends.
His team are scoring plenty of tries, have only lost to New Zealand in South Africa under his guidance, and have won seven of their last eight matches away from home - the only loss to New Zealand.
But Meyer has hit the right notes in more than one area. Where he’s really surprised is in his selections. He’s picked and backed plenty of youngsters in the last year; men with flair, like Willie le Roux, the Sevens star Cornal Hendricks, and now Handré Pollard and Damian de Allende, not to mention Lood de Jager.
Meyer has always said he’d only pick the best men to play for the Boks, and he’s stuck to his word, meaning there will always be a place in the team for the seasoned man, like Bakkies Botha, provided they’re good enough.
The Bok squad for the Rugby Championship may not be the squad that will go to the World Cup next year, but it is certainly a group good enough to win the competition, which starts on Saturday for the Boks when they take on Argentina at Loftus Versfeld. Meyer as well as captain Jean de Villiers have spoken about the need to beat the All Blacks this year and while that will be one goal, the most important thing really is bagging the trophy for the competition.
Meyer’s men came close last year but with probably a stronger squad this season and the experiences of the 2013 campaign fresh in their minds, the Boks are well-placed going into what should be a tougher 2014 competition, with Australia seemingly back on the up. But first things first, the Boks want to make a strong start against Argentina who they face on Saturday and next week, in Salta.
“The first two games are the most important,” said Meyer this week. He’s fully aware his team need to hit the ground running and bag as many points as possible, against the weakest of the teams. But, that’s not saying Argentina will be pushovers.
“They’re a tough side, they contest every facet of play and it’s always an arm wrestle,” said Meyer. “And they’ve got a new coach (Daniel Hourcade) and that always brings a new passion to a team.”
The Bok boss further stated Argentina had changed their style somewhat and now also favoured a running game - much like the Boks. Hourcade said as much on Thursday when he named his team - which includes veterans Juan Martin Hernandez and Marcelo Bosch in midfield - for the match. “Defence will be key, but when we have opportunities to attack, we intend to do it with a lot of dynamism. The biggest challenge is that we want to impose our offensive system.”
Captain De Villiers and De Allende, both just back from injury lay-offs, face a massive test, but the key battle will be up front, and at the breakdowns in particular. It’s an established and well-functioning Bok loose-trio but they’re going to have their work cut out against some crafty Argentine players, among them Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. And what a battle it promises to be with both teams fully aware of the need for quick and clean ball from the breakdowns.
“We’ve shown we can score tries when we get quick ball and we’ll continue to try and do that. I know though that the third year for a team, historically, is always the toughest so we’re going to have to work hard and not look past Argentina,” said Meyer.
Indeed, the Wallabies and All Blacks are still a few weeks away; right now the Boks must ensure they grab everything they can from Los Pumas because after Saturday, the Rugby Championship gets a whole lot tougher.