SA unity can close NZ gap

It’s not just up to Meyer, but lo­cal rugby too, work­ing as a col­lec­tive

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - GAVIN RICH

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.

GALLO IM­AGES

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.

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