1. Where are we?
WHEN Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer met with a group of South African rugby writers for a coffee in the team hotel on the Sunday after the Twickenham Test that ended the season last year, he made a promise that his side has certainly managed to keep.
“Next year what was new to us this year will start to become second nature. Our attacking game will grow a lot, and that is something I can promise you,” said the coach.
Meyer was helped this year by his team having a much easier build-up to the serious part of the season, meaning the Rugby Championship, than was the case in his first season in charge. Italy, Scotland and Samoa represented a far less daunting prospect than his baptism last year against England after just a five-day buildup to the series.
The extra work Meyer was able to put into the planning for the new season now that he is working with a management that is committed fully to him rather than also working for the Bulls has paid off, and his willingness to think outside of the box was showcased by the selection of players such as Willie le Roux.
Whereas the Boks struggled to score tries in his first year of the cycle, the confidence they took into the Championship saw them accumulate no less than four bonus points for scoring four tries or more. And with four wins from six starts in the Championship, followed by another successful end-ofyear tour in which Wales, Scotland and France gave them an 80 percent+ win percentage for the year, it enabled the Boks to reach the halfway point between World Cups having shown measurable progress.
However, as the All Blacks, more than any other team, is the one that South Africans measure their team and coaches by, the defeat in the final match at Ellis Park was a setback.
It means the Boks have lost all four of the games they have played against their main rivals since the World Cup.
But while the All Blacks have undeniably shown signs of progress, and have grown dimensions to their game where they were weak before, the Boks are building up impressive depth too. young Free Stater Johan Goosen when the 2012 Rugby Championship season came to an end. Unfortunately Goosen wasn’t able to kick on from a strong first start against Australia because of injury.
The hopefully temporary halt the injuries have brought to Goosen’s development are a crying shame, for there can be no denying the young player’s awesome potential to become that rare thing in a Bok flyhalf – namely a pivot who is strong in almost all aspects of flyhalf play and run, pass and tackle as well as he can kick. But if he is fit for the duration of next year there is still time for him to be reintroduced and given a chance to settle.
In any event, the Boks can’t approach the World Cup with just one flyhalf, and Patrick Lambie probably should have been offered more game time in the pre-season Test matches than he was. His showing in the win over Scotland on the endof-year tour was positive.
And then there is the precocious Handré Pollard, who was part of the Baby Bok triumph at the 2012 World Cup while still a schoolboy.
Watch him, for he has massive potential.
The No 5 lock situation has a less easy remedy, which may be why there are persistent rumours circulating in the background that Victor Matfield may be poised to do a George Smith by returning to rugby next year.
Fortunately, although he wasn’t used that much on tour, young Sharks player PieterSteph du Toit showed signs of growth at the end of the Currie Cup season.
There is no denying that Du Toit packs enormous potential, but the question revolves around how quickly he is going to develop.
4. The strong points
THE Boks made a strong step forward with their play at the breakdowns this year, and the return to the playing field of Schalk Burger in the Currie Cup was a reminder that South Africa has a pool of looseforward resources that would be the envy of any other country. Willem Alberts is now an established match- winner at blindside flank, and he has strong back-up in the form of Burger and Arno Botha, the latter making an impressive debut against Italy before being injured a week later against Scotland back in June.
In Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss, Meyer has the choice of two hookers who would be good enough for any other international team. Both of them have built up a vast reservoir of experience.
Jannie du Plessis missed tackles in both matches against New Zealand but as long as he is the only tight forward with question marks over his defence that can be covered by the system.
He has become really good in his primary role, as has Tendai Mtawarira, and you don’t get the impression the Bok scrum will be taking any steps backward any time soon.
Much will depend though on how quickly young Frans Malherbe, who played twice on the end-of-year tour, develops, and on how well Coenie Oosthuizen continues his adjustment to tighthead. Scrum coach Pieter de Villiers has done great work in his field of expertise this year.
5. The over-30 club
MOST coaches are in agreement that for a team to stand a chance of World Cup success there has to be a nucleus of experienced players around whom any potential talented newcomers can be introduced. New Zealand has that, and South Africa has that.
The question, though, is how many is too many?
The England team that won the World Cup in 2003 had the right mix, but perhaps the Wallabies of 1995 banked too much on the players who won the World Cup for them in 1991, and the same for the Boks of 2011.
In the backline, in particular, the Boks are in danger of becoming an over- 30s club, with Fourie du Preez, Morne Steyn, Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana all set to be into their fourth decade of life when 2015 rolls around. So a fine balancing act may be necessary.
6. The overseas question
MEYER was lauded for bringing Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie and JP Pietersen back to play for the Boks from Japan, and he must be the envy of the coaches of the other two big southern hemisphere teams for being allowed by his national union to choose players based overseas.
But in the build-up to the match against Australia in Brisbane the potential pitfalls were drummed home when French- based players were called on to play for their clubs at a time when the rest of the squad was in Australia preparing for the match. Again, as with the question about older players, what is the right balance?
7. The resources
IT would be naïve to suggest everything will run perfectly smoothly for the Boks between now and 2015, but one thing is certain – the Boks have resources to draw on that would be the envy of most other nations.
The provincial academies and the various feeder competitions that are taking root are beginning to produce a conveyor belt of talented players that should ensure no Bok coach should ever feel he is short of raw material to work with. The following are Meyer’s options for 2015 as it stands now, and not taking into account new players who will make their mark between now and then (players with utility value are listed in all positions they could play): Fullbacks: Frans Steyn, Zane Kirchner, Willie le Roux, Patrick Lambie, Jaco Taute, Gio Aplon. Wings: Bryan Habana, Bjorn Basson, JP Pietersen, Willie le Roux, Lwazi Mvovo, JJ Engelbrecht. Centres: Jean de Villiers, Jan Serfontein, Frans Steyn, JJ Engelbrecht, Juan de Jongh, Jaque Fourie. Flyhalves: Johan Goosen, Morne Steyn, Patrick Lambie, Handré Pollard. Scrumhalves: Fourie du Preez, Ruan Pienaar, Jano Vermaak, Francois Hougaard. No 8s: Duane Vermeulen, Pierre Spies, Willem Alberts, Ryan Kankowski (possibly). Flanks: Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, Schalk Burger, Siya Kolisi, Arno Botha, Marcell Coetzee. Locks: Eben Etzebeth, Flip van der Merwe, Juandre Kruger, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Andries Bekker (possibly). Props: Tendai Mtawarira, Jannie du Plessis, Coenie Oosthuizen, Gurthro Steenkamp, Frans Malherbe, Lourens Adriaanse. Hookers: Bismarck du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss.
WINNING PARTNERSHIP: Bok coach Heyneke Meyer and captain Jean de Villiers haven’t done too badly, have they?
Only Meyer knows if Andries Bekker is still Bok material.
A fit Johan Goosen could be the Boks’ answer at flyhalf.