A good sort of déjà vu
Maybe it’s working in rugby for a long time that contributes to that feeling you are seeing something you have seen before, but it certainly came to me in a big way after Saturday’s emphatic Springbok trouncing of the Wallabies at Loftus.
It was one game later, in the very last match the Boks played in that
season’s Tri-Nations, that Peter de Villiers saved his bacon in his first
season in 2008. The venue was Coca-Cola Park, but the opponents were also
Australia, and I remember having the sense of déjà vu that day because of
what another Bok team had done to Australia at Loftus in Carel du Plessis’s
first – and what proved only – season in 1997.
Like De Villiers, Heyneke Meyer will carry on from here of course, and not
suffer the same fate as Du Plessis, who was axed after a 61-22 win, and he
would have done so regardless of this most recent result. But in all three
games one of the similarities was the way the Boks achieved it while
appearing to the onlooker to be playing a different way to how they had
Some of the Boks who were part of Du Plessis’s side 15 years ago now
readily admit what seemed pretty obvious at the time – which is that they
resolved that day to play it their way rather than the way Du Plessis
wanted them to play. It was being much more direct than they had been in a
while that the Boks paved the way for victory.
And it was a similar story in 2008, though history records that
non-playing captain John Smit and the rest of the senior players and
assistant coaches on that occasion made the decision to become more direct
in consultation with De Villiers rather than go behind his back. There was
a team meeting before the previous game in Durban where a lot of the
misconceptions and misunderstandings were cleared up, and Fourie du Preez
and Butch James spearheaded a 53-8 victory.
From an early stage of that game in 2008 it was obvious from the press box
that aspects of the Bok game had been changed. Everything was so much more
direct and there was none of the aimless running to wide points that we
had seen in some of the earlier games.
But when afterwards De Villiers was asked whether there had been a change
to a more direct style, he raised eyebrows among scribes by denying that
had been the case. The message peddled was that it was just a case of the
Boks making the right decisions and thus creating opportunities.
Technically that wasn’t an untruth, just as technically it wasn’t an
untruth when first skipper Jean de Villiers and then coach Meyer made
similar statements after Loftus a few days ago. Judging from what was
written, a few of my colleagues appeared to be amazed that neither Meyer
nor De Villiers acknowledged that there had been much less kicking.
De Villiers just said that there were more attacking opportunities, Meyer
said that the forwards had been dominant, which of course they were in
Dunedin too but a lot of ball was just kicked away in that game.
Judging from the rugby conversations I have had with an assortment of
people since Loftus, it seems most South Africans have made up their own
minds. You didn’t have to be at Loftus to notice the difference Johan
Goosen made by attacking the line and bringing the players around him into
the game. Those piercing breaks he made sent out a clear message to the
Aussie defenders that he needed to be watched, and by engaging defenders
the flyhalf creates opportunity for the players outside him.
The selection of Francois Louw has also made a quantum difference to the
Bok game, and while I feel sorry for the outstanding Marcell Coetzee,
Meyer’s belated recognition of the role of the fetcher has brought a
balance that wasn’t there before.
I didn’t ever believe that Meyer just wanted every ball to be kicked, and
he always pursued an intelligent kicking game rather than a mindless one,
so both he and his captain may be correct when they say that the game-plan
What is important though is that a successful game-plan requires that you
have players who can execute it correctly, and that is undeniably what has
changed with the Boks over the last few weeks. Louw’s ability to contest
the breakdown and Goosen’s decision-making and ability to mix it up and
bring balance to the strategy add the dimensions that were previously
By selecting the right back row and the right halfbacks – let’s not forget
that Goosen wasn’t available to Meyer until recently – Meyer has moved
closer to satisfying a demanding public, and if my sense of déjà vu is
correct, there is historical precedent to suggest that what the coaches
and captain say about the game-plan really doesn’t matter.
All that matters is that Meyer continues down the path that we saw the
Boks take at Loftus, just as Peter de Villiers did in 2008. The changes we
saw to the Bok game in the Coca-Cola Park win over the Aussies that year
were carried over into the successful end of year tour that followed and
then into a triumphant 2009 where they won the Tri-Nations and beat the
British and Irish Lions.
And while Du Plessis did not reap the benefits of the turnaround at
Loftus in 1997, the big win there did ensure that the man who took over from
him, Nick Mallett, had something to build on. The Boks didn’t lose another
match after that for 15 months.
While we shouldn’t pretend that the Australian team that the Boks beat was
a strong one, and the margin of victory at a stadium the Aussies hate was
more or less what should have been expected, there were signs at Loftus
that under Meyer the Boks could be poised to start a similar successful