Win­ning for­mula for Boks

The ‘Un­beat­a­bles’ are set­ting a hec­tic pace in world rugby, but the Spring­boks are clos­ing the gap, writes JOHN BISHOP

Weekend Witness - - Sport -

COACH Heyneke Meyer is a hum­ble fel­low, but even he had that warm con­tented glow af­ter the Spring­boks fin­ished a marathon sea­son with a sprint to beat the French in Paris last Satur­day night.

The South Africans have been at the front­line for 10 months, start­ing with the weekly hand-to-hand com­bat of Su­per Rugby fol­lowed by a flurry of in­ter­na­tion­als and then the Cur­rie Cup be­fore re­turn­ing to muddy for­eign trenches to face fresh Euro­pean op­po­si­tion.

Yet they have come up roses, win­ning 13 of their last 15 Tests in the past year. The two losses were against the All Blacks, who have beaten ev­ery­one else on the planet.

The Spring­boks will not be sat­is­fied un­til they have also over­come their tra­di­tional ri­vals, but they made sig­nif­i­cant ad­vances dur­ing this year’s long cam­paign with Meyer re­warded for brave selec­tions and as­tute plan­ning.

The All Blacks, la­belled “The Un­beat­a­bles” af­ter their re­mark­able se­quence of vic­to­ries, re­main the bench­mark. But the New Zealand Her­ald con­ceded this week that the All Blacks are “not as far ahead of their chal­lengers as it ap­pears” af­ter they were rat­tled in all three Tests (against France, Eng­land and Ire­land) on their Euro­pean tour. They squeaked home at the death against Ire­land, “a per­fect sea­son clinched with an im­per­fect per­for­mance”.

And with the 2015 Rugby World Cup tak­ing place in the UK, con­di­tions will suit the power rugby of the Spring­boks rather than the high tempo game of the All Blacks. The short­age of pace in the burly Bok backrow will not be as ob­vi­ous in the heavy go­ing.

The Spring­boks were fairly com­fort­able and de­ci­sive win­ners against Six Na­tions cham­pi­ons Wales, Scot­land and France, scor­ing eight tries and con­ced­ing only one.

A fea­ture of their fi­nal out­ing of the long year, the 19-10 win in Paris, was their in­ten­sity and their fierce com­mit­ment on de­fence. While the All Blacks were show­ing real signs of fa­tigue on their tour, bruised Spring­boks were still queue­ing up to make mas­sive hits, and that is a trib­ute to Meyer and the de­sire in his squad.

Meyer, both tac­ti­cally and in terms of se­lec­tion, made very few er­rors and in most cases proved his crit­ics wrong.

He still tapped into the tra­di­tional strengths of South African rugby with the Spring­boks plac­ing op­po­nents un­der pres­sure with their phys­i­cal­ity, ag­gres­sive de­fence and strong kick-and­chase game.

But there were marked im­prove­ments in sev­eral ar­eas and re­fine­ments in oth­ers. The in­tro­duc­tion of Wil­lie le Roux, first on the wing and then full­back, added a touch of the un­pre­dictable to the Spring­bok game. No longer can op­po­nents kick deep and sit back. Le Roux, JP Pi­etersen and Bryan Ha­bana have the po­ten­tial and pace to threaten on the counter.

Way back in June the Scots gave the Boks a nasty scare in Nel­spruit when they dom­i­nated the tackle area. But the ad­di­tion of break­down ex­pert, Scots­man Richie Gray, to Meyer’s coach­ing staff has re­sulted in a weak­ness be­com­ing a strength. In Duane Ver­meulen, Willem Al­berts and Fran­cois Louw, the Spring­boks have the most de­struc­tive loose trio in world rugby, but, of course, the con­stant bash­ing away on the gain­line will lead to in­jury and Meyer needs to add depth to his backrow tal­ent.

Meyer was also crit­i­cised for the se­lec­tion of the Ja­pan-based Fourie du Preez, but the world-class scrumhalf im­me­di­ately lifted the team, im­proved the tac­ti­cal kick­ing and in­stinc­tively in­volved backs and for­wards in at­tack­ing sor­ties. Meyer will now be hop­ing that Du Preez steers clear of ma­jor in­jury un­til 2015 — and the chances of that hap­pen­ing will im­prove if the for­mer Blue Bull con­tin­ues his ca­reer play­ing fewer games of less in­ten­sity in Ja­pan.

What was less sat­is­fac­tory was the tug of war be­tween the Ja­panese clubs and lead­ing Spring­boks and this dis­rupted the team.

Ruan Pien­aar, a sound all-round player, is Meyer’s sec­ond-choice scrumhalf, but he con­tin­ues to blow hot and cold, oc­ca­sion­ally com­mit­ting ba­sic er­rors. His ten­dency to stand up and take his eyes off the ball at the base of a ruck not only pro­vided the French with the op­por­tu­nity to score their only try on Satur­day, but it also slows the Boks’ mo­men­tum.

It is un­for­tu­nate that Meyer failed in his at­tempt to per­suade the blos­som­ing, French-based Rory Kock­ott — a pro­lific goal-kicker — to join the Spring­boks for the tour. The for­mer Sharks scrumhalf, France’s Top 14 player of the year, be­comes el­i­gi­ble to play for Les Bleus next year, but he would have pro­vided Meyer with a spe­cial­ist goal-kicker and en­abled him to se­lect the more bal­anced Pat Lam­bie in­stead of Morné Steyn at fly­half.

In­stead it seems that Meyer is look­ing to the in­jury-plagued Jo­han Goos- en, a young­ster of prodi­gious tal­ent and a goal-kicker, to suc­ceed Steyn with Lam­bie pro­vid­ing cover for both full­back and fly­half.

Meyer has said that he re­mains con­cerned about his num­ber five lock and there has been gen­eral sur­prise at his re­luc­tance to thrust the 21-year-old Pi­eter-Steph du Toit into the start­ing lineup.

“The num­ber five lock runs the li­ne­out and peo­ple who are not in­volved do not re­alise what that en­tails and what a huge chal­lenge it would be for a young­ster like Pi­eter-Steph,” said Meyer.

He said that a sea­son con­trol­ling the Sharks li­ne­out next year would make the dif­fer­ence.

“I have al­ways said I have a plan with Pi­eter-Steph and you will see it come through next year. He will be fed into the sys­tem.”

It all seems hush-hush, but there are sug­ges­tions that Meyer is wait­ing to see whether vet­eran lock Vic­tor Mat­field does in­deed have the will to sub­ject his 36-year-old body to the rigours of top- flight rugby af­ter an ab­sence of two years.

Meyer said that his tight­head con­cerns had eased fol­low­ing the suc­cess of first Frans Mal­herbe and Coe­nie Oosthuizen on tour.

“I was wor­ried when Jan­nie du Plessis wasn’t avail­able to tour, but sud­denly we have three good play­ers at tight­head and we are well cov­ered there.”

The Spring­boks still lack depth on the wing and at open side flank where there is no ob­vi­ous back-up for Louw. Meyer has a cou­ple of young cen­tres (Jan Ser­fontein and JJ En­gel­brecht) just off stage while, of course, the Sharks’ in­flu­en­tial Frans Steyn, over his knee surgery, is cer­tain to be in­volved next year.

But the most pos­i­tive fea­ture of 2013 is that the Spring­bok are un­der the com­mand of a gen­eral (Meyer) and a cap­tain (Jean de Vil­liers) who know where they are go­ing and how they are go­ing to get there.

And, on the ev­i­dence of the fight they showed in Cardiff, Ed­in­burgh and Paris, the troops are united be­hind them.


Heyneke Meyer’s Spring­boks are united be­hind the coach and his cap­tain in their quest to scale the fi­nal heights of world rugby.

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