Springboks / 7 December 2014, 2:49pm / Ashfak Mohamed
After beating the All Blacks for the first time since 2011, all was seemingly well and good in the world of Springbok rugby this year. And one would’ve thought the Ellis Park triumph may see the South Africans finally challenge New Zealand’s undoubted status as the best team in the world.
But even when taking a lengthy injury list into consideration, inadequate performances on the November tour of Europe raised questions about this group of Springboks in a number of areas that may have been present before, but have been willed away due to an unbeaten home record and a 27-25 victory over the Kiwis.
Instead of going into the World Cup year as the No2 side in the game pushing Steve Hansen’s world-beating outfit, coach Heyneke Meyer and his team are now suddenly holding off the challenge of a resurgent Ireland under Joe Schmidt.
Meyer, though, felt things were going well leading into the end-of-year trip.
“Up to the Wales game, I thought we had ticked most of the boxes. I really thought we were good enough to win the (Rugby) Championship – it was one tackle that Duane (Vermeulen) made (on Wallaby prop James Slipper, which was adjudged to be high when it hadn’t been), a 50/50, and it would’ve been the Championship (for the Boks),” the coach said this week reflecting on the year.
“We lost by one point against Australia away, four points against New Zealand away, so we were good enough to win the Championship.
“It’s the first time since 2005 that we had won all our home games – we started with a lot of guys coming in during June due to injuries, but I thought we came through tough games. So we did everything up until the Wales game.”
The damage of that 29-15 defeat at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin will only really be measured after next year’s Rugby World Cup in England, where the Boks will be judged appropriately, with all things being equal. That is because Meyer can easily roll off the names of such key figures as Fourie du Preez, Ruan Pienaar, Francois Louw and Willem Alberts who have missed large chunks of the Test season due to injury.
There is still uncertainty over the Test future of centres Frans Steyn and Jaque Fourie – both have made themselves unavailable in recent months but the coach may ask them to change their minds following the severe knee injury suffered by captain Jean de Villiers.
In the end, a record of nine wins out of 13 Tests (69.23 percent) is not the worst of ratios, especially when this was the third year of Meyer’s tenure, a point when injuries usually affect a team most.
But it’s not quite accurate of Meyer to say the Boks “had done everything” ahead of the 12-6 defeat to the Welsh in Cardiff in their last match of the year. They had been unconvincing in their two narrow wins over Argentina in the Championship, where four-try bonus points could’ve given them a real chance of grabbing the title.
And getting past Wales in Nelspruit and, in fact, the All Blacks victory through controversial refereeing decisions in the late stages of the game were fortunate episodes for the South Africans.
It is also true that questionable yellow-card decisions by referees played a massive part in the Boks going down to Australia in Perth (Bryan Habana), Ireland (Adriaan Strauss) and now Wales (Cornal Hendricks) – the two to wings Habana (for a high tackle on Adam Ashley-Cooper) and Hendricks (taking Leigh Halfpenny out in the air) particularly galling.
Contesting the high ball in the air is becoming a serious problem for the Boks as they seem to be getting into trouble in each incident, so the management will have to continue chatting to the referees beforehand and possibly instruct players to rather wait for their opponents to touch the ground before tackling them.
The two November losses to Ireland and Wales stung Meyer, who is intending to be proactive next year in the lead-up to the World Cup by teaching his backs the art of tactical kicking.
“While it’s great to play running rugby and score tries – because that is what people will see – I believe the World Cup is going to be an arm-wrestle, and that is what I found on tour,” he said.
“I always said I am worried that we are trying to play like the All Blacks used to play and score tries, but they never won World Cups. Where they’ve got it right, I believe, is that they worked hard on their tactical kicking.
“As a nation, we were the best tactical kicking team and in the air as well.
“Now when I spoke to Warren Gatland after the Wales game, he said the difference between the All Blacks game and our game is that the All Blacks had two great kicks that won the match.
“If you look at the game against us (in Wellington), the All Blacks had that one kick with (Richie) McCaw and (Kieran) Read, and they scored.
“So, what I’ve learned is that it’s a totally different game. This is about winning – you have to have the balance right.
“We scored three tries against (Wales) last year, but you have to find the balance. So, I’ve learned that you can’t prepare in the same way for a northern hemisphere tour that you would for the Championship.
“And it’s not just the conditions, as you never get quick ball. It’s always an arm-wrestle and the scrums are messy, the line-outs – you can never get a drive set.
“So we really have to work, as South Africans, on our kicking game because we have really fallen behind with our tactical kicking.
“If you look at the games we lost, Ireland out-kicked us with their tactical kicking, England had a very young team (but it went well for them, too).
“Wales played and played and then kicked in behind us, and then we had to run out with the ball through Lwazi (Mvovo). So you are always under pressure.
“What I’ve learned from of this tour is that it’s totally different, and we need to work on three things – our tactical kicking, and I think South Africa (provincial teams as a whole). Then kicking contestable kicks, at which we used to be the best in the world, and the breakdown. If we fix those three things, I think we would be a very great side.”
That sounds very much like reverting to the uninspiring approach of 2012 when the Boks used Morné Steyn and Zane Kirchner to kick up-and-unders for the wings to chase all day. But Meyer was quick to say it won’t be the case this time around.
“We have been working really hard on our tactical kicking, and when I say tactical kicking, we don’t want to go back to a kicking game. We have to kick to regain the ball, and we got the mix right against England. Whenever we’ve beaten a northern hemisphere team, two years back we still scored tries, but we were a little bit better tactically – a guy like Zane played, and Morné played. So you have to find the balance,” he said.
“I think the pitches we will play on (at the World Cup) are going to be much quicker, I’ve inspected that.
“And even if it’s wet, it’s much quicker. So you have to balance that out.
“It’s going to be a totally different competition (at the World Cup) than the Championship and we need to find the balance between attack and the tactical kicking.
“Maybe what I used to call the old ‘pressure-and-suffocate’ game, where you put pressure on them the whole time – because if you look at all the World Cups, it’s all about penalties. This Wales Test was also about penalties.
“We can do all the other stuff we couldn’t do (before), but we have to get back the stuff that we used to be the best at in the world.”
The pressure game will only take the Boks to a certain point, though, as even though the forwards were on top in the scrums and line-outs in November, the South Africans didn’t look like they knew what to do with the ball to unlock defences on attack.
There were a lot of “crash-ball” tactics and direct running from the likes of De Villiers, Jan Serfontein, Duane Vermeulen and Marcell Coetzee which didn’t take the team anywhere.
A little bit of finesse by Willie le Roux, Pat Lambie and Nizaam Carr showed what could be achieved, but Meyer insists that well-organised defences make life very difficult for attacking teams.
“Honestly, the game has changed. I promise you, these days most tries come from kicks, and we saw that with Patrick’s chip over the top for Willie and Cobus (Reinach, against England), which we really worked hard at,” he said.
“But if you look at most tries recently, it’s very difficult in the 22 because everybody’s up in a line and guys would rather concede (three points than a try).
“Where most of the tries come from is broken field, where they kick on you and you can attack from there.
“It’s very difficult inside the 22 as you get slower ball.
“Wales also had a five-metre scrum and couldn’t score, and so did we, and then the ball popped out of the scrum.
“One thing I’m not worried about is that we can score tries. We just need to be a little bit more patient.”
But to achieve optimum performance, Meyer also needs to make firm decisions as to who his first choices are next year at flyhalf (Lambie, Handré Pollard or Morné Steyn), hooker (Bismarck du Plessis or Adriaan Strauss) and outside centre, which is probably the biggest headache the coach will face in the off-season following De Villiers’s injury.