Salta - Ever the optimist, Heyneke Meyer believes the Springboks can still win this year’s Rugby Championship despite his team starting the competition with two unconvincing wins against Argentina.
The Boks wrapped up their dates against Los Pumas here on Saturday with a nervy 33-31 win to go with a 13-6 victory in Pretoria in round one of the competition. Meyer’s men struggled in both games - first in the wet at Loftus Versfeld and then in boiling heat here - with their set-piece play getting a hammering in both matches.
And while many will argue Argentina have made great strides since entering the competition in 2012, which they have, and are not to be taken lightly, the matches to come against Australia and New Zealand are likely to pose far greater challenges for the Boks than Los Pumas.
It is fair to say the Boks are not playing at nearly the levels and standards they’ve set for themselves in the last three years and are relying heavily on their opponents’ failure to close out games to get them through.
In three of the last four games the Boks have played - Wales in Nelspruit and Argentina home and away - Meyer’s men have had to dig really deep to avoid defeat.
But in spite of this and failing to pick up any bonus points against Argentina, the Bok boss is confident his side can still go on and win the Rugby Championship. “The great thing is I know we can improve, I know we can play much better,” said Meyer after his side turned around a 12-point deficit here on Saturday to remain unbeaten against Argentina.
“It’s up to the players now… they need to look in the mirror and know they must keep improving. I know we’re going to be written off, but we’ll take it and be the underdogs (in Australia and New Zealand). There’s a lot of hard work ahead for us, but we’re still in this competition and I believe we can win it.”
The Boks had to rely on their bench-sitters and the Pumas running out of steam, after they’d made such a fast start on Saturday to get the job done. Cornal Hendricks and Marcell Coetzee scored late second half tries, with Morné Steyn coming off the bench, too, to kick two conversions and a 77th-minute penalty for the Boks to edge their hosts. It was not a good performance, though, and Argentina will feel they let another massive opportunity slip away.
Meyer admitted it had been another close shave. “I’m definitely relieved,” he said afterwards. “All credit to the Pumas. They played some awesome rugby and you could see they’ve been together for over a month now.
“For me it was another great character test, and the fact is we’ve won nine out of 10 away games now. This team knows how to win, we’ve shown we can come back when it looks as if we’re down and out, and that’s a big positive.”
Meyer said a lot of work lay ahead for him and his charges. The biggest challenge right now is to fix a scrum that has been badly shown up in recent times. “I’m worried about the scrums, but it’s a worldwide thing. There are so many penalties now at scrum-time and I think a lot of coaches are worried about it, but yes, it’s an aspect of our game we need to work on.”
Indeed, but the Boks have work to do in other areas as well. They were found wanting defensively at times on Saturday as well and their kicking game was also not up to scratch.
There’s certainly plenty to ponder ahead of the trip to Australia later this week.