SA unity can close NZ gap
It’s not just up to Meyer, but local rugby too, working as a collective
SPRINGBOK coach Heyneke Meyer agreed the mood was different when he met with journalists in Paris last Sunday in comparison to the corresponding meeting in London 12 months previously, but the new kind of pressure he feels now speaks volumes for how his team has progressed in a year.
On the morning after last year’s win over England at Twickenham, Meyer’s relief was palpable. The coach was less obviously relieved in Montparnasse six days ago. The win over France the previous day hadn’t been about survival, it was about making this year a special year. A win percentage of more than 80 has only been bettered twice in the post-isolation era.
And yet while more relaxed than he was in High Street Kensington last November, there was still an easily detectable restlessness in Meyer’s conversation. There are things to be done, there are goals to be met, this is the halfway point between World Cups, and Meyer is not going to allow himself the luxury of being satisfied, something that has tripped up others and he knows can trip up his team too.
“In comparison to last year in London there is a different kind of pressure now,” said Meyer. “Back then it was about survival, and I had been playing catch-up all year. So when we beat England and finished with a positive win percentage, it was hugely relieving as I knew I would have more time to prepare for this year. That first season had been all about getting to know the players, and them getting to know me. Contrary to what people think, I hadn’t worked with many of them before.
“But the plan has started to come together this year, and that has brought on new pressures. With consistent success comes heightened expectation, and raised standards. This end of year tour was crucial to how the season would be viewed. Coming here we were on a knife-edge in that if we lost two games it would ruin the year.”
That was what happened to Peter de Villiers’s team in their triumphant year of 2009. They dominated the southern hemisphere season, winning the TriNations and the series against the British and Irish Lions, but the gloss was taken away from the achievement when they lost two out of three games played on their November tour.
It was why 2009, with four defeats on the Bok record, was inferior to this year if you judge success purely on games won and lost and not on trophies accumulated or series won. But trophies are important to Meyer, and as he reflects during the down time ahead of him from next month until January on the year that has been, he will regret the events that led to the two defeats that prevented Rugby Championship success and which prevented him breaching the barrier to total acceptance by the South African rugby public.
In 2009, the All Blacks were beaten three times, and in Meyer’s tenure a win over New Zealand has yet to be recorded. As the Kiwis will be the biggest obstacle to Bok success in England in 2015, it is crucial to their confidence that they do get one over the old enemy soon.
But there were mitigating circumstances in those All Black games. The bizarreness of Auckland and the Bismarck du Plessis sending off meant that in their quest for silverware, the Boks had to play a game that suited New Zealand in the tournament decider at Ellis Park.
Meyer would be the last to quibble with the All Blacks’ right to be recognised as the top team at the moment, and after an unbeaten year, the world champions deserve their No 1 ranking. But if the World Cup is the ultimate goal in the fouryear cycle, then taking a line on the Bok ability to win the main prize based on this year’s results is not comparing apples with apples.
If the Boks and All Blacks meet in a World Cup match it will be in the knock-out phase. Just winning, by any means, and with no try scoring requirement set down, is a different challenge to what the two teams faced in their games this year. More than that, they will be playing in the northern hemisphere, where the Boks may be just a little more comfortable with the conditions than the All Blacks are.
“The conditions do suit us in that the going underfoot is heavier and that makes the game just a little bit slower and gives your defence more time to set,” said Meyer.
In other words, there is less chance of the All Blacks using their running skills and superior conditioning to edge you out than there would be in southern hemisphere conditions. And the results attained on the past two tours to the north by the Boks and Kiwis respectively do justify the confidence.
The All Black defeat to England in the last game of last year is the only blemish by the two southern hemisphere powerhouses on northern tours, and the All Blacks were less convincing on this trip than the Boks were. The stats, which show that the South Africans have scored 12 tries and conceded just two across their last six games north of the equator are impressive.
But to beat the All Blacks is going to require a concerted effort, for it is clear that the New Zealanders are determined not to stand still. Their kicking game, and the catching and kicking of all the players in the back three, has improved immeasurably.
That, says Meyer, was because New Zealand rugby got together as a collective after the 3-0 whitewash at the hands of the Boks in 2009 to find ways to get the All Blacks back to the top. It is not just the All Blacks who have improved aspects of their kicking game, it has happened across all the teams, which is necessary if success is going to be consistent.
While the communication and co-operation between the teams and national management has improved under Meyer’s watch, it still isn’t anywhere near the level of New Zealand. It’s not just up to Meyer to set that right, it is up to South African rugby as a collective. Unity of purpose is not a noted strength of South African rugby, but it will need to become it if the gap opened by the All Blacks is to be closed.
GREEN GIANT: Heyneke Meyer needs a buy-in from all of SA’s rugby franchises to beat the All Blacks - with the main date being their possible knock-out fixture at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.