Bok boys need to become men
Perspective is a wonderful thing. To cut through all the emotion, the drama and the vitriol, and still be able to see clearly is something that is all too difficult for most of us who are passionate about sport.
That’s why it was a jolt of reality that cut through when a friend who recently lost his wife, left a post on a social network that read: “my friend lost his 9 year old daughter this week ..... That is a tragedy, not the rugby. #someperspective”
It made me stop and sit in silence. It made me realise once again that in the greater scope of things a sporting loss or victory is only temporary.
But this column is not about making you feel bad for getting emotional about the Springboks. It is perfectly acceptable to be frustrated with a loss. To disagree with selections or tactics is understandable. To vent every now and then is just as acceptable.
Yet somewhere in the middle of all this emotional bluster there has to be some perspective. My colleague Gavin Rich explained it perfectly in his column that the frustration is not that the Boks are losing, but that it seems they are afraid to go outside their comfort zone.
I have to concur.
But for a moment put yourself in Heyneke Meyer’s shoes. You have lost the bulk of a World Cup-winning side, and while there is enough talent to be confident to go to the next World Cup with, there is an ever increasing need to rebuild a team that for years won matches more on experience and street smarts than actual coaching.
You have lost the likes of Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Juan Smit, Gurthro Steenkamp, Bismarck du Plessis, Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith, Jacque Fourie, JP Pietersen and several others. The back-up is young, it is hungry, but it is also inexperienced.
Any coach will tell you that to get a winning team together you need a mixture of youth and experience. To rely on youth will bring you success long term, but it will also be a rocky road short term.
Yet we keep on dismissing the coach when he says there is inexperience, mainly because of our belief that Super Rugby dominance should bring success at international level.
I was reminded today as well that the word crisis is bandied about much too often in our rugby. But let’s look at the facts. We have a Bok pack that, other than props Jannie du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira, had less than 15 test caps each. Duanne Vermeulen was making his debut, Eben Etzebeth and Marcel Coetzee were in their sixth game, Juandre Kruger in his fourth. Even Willem Alberts has only 15 caps to his name.
Rugby is often about platforms set by the forwards, and in Mendoza it was more apparent than ever before how the Boks needed a forward platform. In test match rugby, when the going gets tough, it is up to the senior players to lead up front. On Saturday in Perth, Jannie du Plessis missed four tackles, and gave away two penalties. Mtawarira – the other veteran – gave away a silly yellow card.
Yes, there is merit to the argument that the game plan needs to be altered. The Boks are predictable, they are one-dimensional and they are a side that should be playing better. But they are also a side that is learning.
Meyer is learning as well. He is learning that public patience is thin. He is learning that things don’t always work out for him, especially as his Bok team would probably look very different to the current one if injuries weren’t a factor.
He is learning that life isn’t as easy as coach as he expected, and that time is something you rarely have in putting your plans in place.
The biggest complaint against Meyer right now should be the lack of variety in attack. It is something the Boks will have to look at, and will need to find a solution to very quickly if they are to taste success at all this year.
We’ve seen more often than not that a good coach doesn’t always get success right away. Remember Eddie Jones and the Reds, they lost 92-3 to the Bulls, yet few people will say Eddie Jones is a poor coach. Sometimes players make mistakes – like Lwazi Mvovo not fielding a kickoff, or Jean de Villiers missing a tackle. Sometimes things just don’t go your way. Sometimes your best laid plans come undone.
There is no doubt that Meyer needs to show the team going forward – and needs to be bold. But there is also a need for patience among the public. The All Blacks won the World Cup because they stuck with their coaching team through eight years – Graham Henry would not have survived four in South Africa.
Now the All Blacks are reaping the success of that desire for continuity. They continue to dominate because a succession plan was in place, and players simply carried on from where they left off.
With so many players gone and a public hungry for success, Meyer was always going to struggle.
For those who have already called for his head, here’s some perspective. Bok coach Jake White famously stuck with a team through four years, bringing him the World Cup title in the end. But back in 2004, in his first year and after they were demolished by England at Twickenham, White referred to his team as “Boys playing against Men.”
The current Bok side has disappointed. They have performed below par and they have been conservative in their outlook. But many of them are still finding their feet. Others, like so many in the backline, need to front up as senior players and lead the team.
White famously reminded all before the 2007 World Cup why he stuck with senior players, and why he continued while so many called for his head.
“Patience is not something you'd associate with our rugby. There's this constant thirst for instant gratification and it creates unrealistic expectation. In 2003 we sent boys to win the World Cup. This time we're going to Paris with men," White said in 2007.
"When I got the Bok job in 2004 I asked the administration for four years. I had to have four years to build a team that had a realistic chance of winning the title. Thankfully I'm still here in the fourth year and those boys have grown into test veterans. They're men in every sense of the word. They've matured mentally. They're tougher for the experience of a World Cup and four additional years of test rugby. I can't place a big enough premium on experience. A young guy can make a contribution to the campaign, but you need the older battle-hardened brigade to take you all the way."
The Boks have lost their battle-hardened brigade, and it is time to build again. We tend to over-estimate our depth in rugby, and expect to beat the world’s best with a team that is struggling to achieve its balance.
Our depth is not as good as we reckon. Yes we have wonderful talents in Johan Goosen, Pat Lambie and Elton Jantjies. But if Eben Etzebeth is injured, or Juandre Kruger for that matter, do we have a world class lock to replace them? Do we have a world class tighthead to replace Jannie du Plessis and Pat Cilliers that isn’t currently injured?
Bringing in youngsters in the backline will help with attack, but not if the forwards can’t settle. Faced with that, most coaches would look at playing territory instead of a wildly expansive game plan.
Perth will go down as an opportunity lost for the Boks. It was a game they could, and should have won. But it wasn’t a game that one player would have changed.
This is a team and a coach that is learning about the harsh realities of test rugby. As much as a more attacking approach is needed, patience is needed as well.
And a little bit of perspective, even if our nation's pride has disappointed us.