Cape Town – Call me Mister Grumpy if you like (and you won’t be the first one haha!), but I wonder whether Heyneke Meyer can really jump up and down with glee when he looks back on his first season in charge of the boys in green and gold.
It’s important, as always, to give credit where credit is due, as they say on page one of the book of clichés. And the Springboks deserve a nice loud round of applause for getting through their end-of-year tour with three straight wins. The facts are plain: A lot of top players were out injured, the tour was at the end of a long season, and a coach deserves more than a year in the electric chair of South African sport before he can be judged fairly.
That long season is important. Think about it, if you were Jean de Villiers, where would you rather be in the middle of November? Hauling your frozen body across the UK under those grey and leaden skies, or sitting on a deckchair at Clifton with a long tall litchi juice and ice on one side and a long tall redhead on the other side? (Just teasing about the redhead, Jean).
The Boks deserve to be on the beach in November, or wherever they like to relax. I have never been a fan of the end-of-year tours. The Boks, and for that matter the Wallabies and the All Blacks, should be given a break so that they can rest and get ready for next year. This round-the-clock rugby is madness. No wonder the injury toll climbs and climbs every year. But try telling that to the money men who run rugby. When it comes to player welfare, “Squeeze them, squeeze them, squeeze them” is their motto.
Heyneke had much to be proud of in London on Saturday night. (Pity he insisted the Boks were “blessed” in his post-match interview. Umm, so England weren’t blessed, Heyneke? Just asking.) The defence of the Boks was just awesome, as Victor Matfield would say. And I loved the play of Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen during this tour. In fact, want know one of the big reasons the Stormers lost their last two semi-finals? Because Duane Vermeulen was not there.
There were other encouraging signs. The lineouts, rolling mauls and scrums were top-class (Bantam cock Nigel Owens unfairly blew Jannie du Plessis out of the scrums and off the field at Twickenham). Flo Louw and Willem Alberts were great. Adriaan Strauss was industrious. I’m sad that Lwazi Mvovo did not get a game, and Juan de Jongh was basically wasted.
But the Boks still need a change of mindset, both on and off the field. Four tries (including an intercept and a bizarre one) against Ireland, Scotland and England is not good enough for Springbok rugby. Too much quick ball and too much wonderful ball is kicked away. There is so little creativity in the backline. The majority of players are still not offloading enough in the tackle.
There are times that the Boks appear to wear a fear of failure like a black cloak around their shoulders. And they wear that black cloak off the field too. This year, the captain and the coach were constantly engaging in slanging matches at press conferences around the globe about the style of rugby the Boks play.
Obviously, winning is just about everything in sport, but how you win also counts for something. Winning ugly sure is better than losing pretty, but winning pretty will always be the reddest and the sweetest cherry.
Heyneke made a brave and a big call when he went for Pat Lambie ahead of Morné Steyn at flyhalf. Frustratingly, Lambie was clearly playing to instructions against Scotland. But Meyer had the grace to say in public that he wanted Lambie to “play his natural game” against England. The conditions were poor, but Lambie did for the most part kick effectively at Twickenham, and showed a few brief glimpses of the special finesse that he is capable of.
Lambie, Elton Jantjies and Johan Goosen must be the Bok conductors at No 10 next year, and it looks like Meyer has bought into that concept. It was revealing to hear Brendan Venter implore Meyer on TV on Saturday to “not ignore smaller players” next year. Spoken like a proper gent, Brendan!
The argument that New Zealand are so far ahead of the Boks at the moment because they have a settled team is not without merit. But, as usual, New Zealand have also introduced a lot of young players this season. And they have been the pace-setters in the game for a long time now, not just this year. That is what the Boks must aim for – beating the All Blacks and the Wallabies on a regular basis. And I don’t believe you can do that with an ultra-defensive mindset. You need to embrace attack and defence. Because like it or not, beating the ABs is still the ABC of rugby football.