Boks are a curate’s egg
It doesn’t normally take three or four days to come out with a column after a game, but then the Dublin match was so strange that it made it necessary to hold off until there was a bit of clarity on what really happened there.
To be honest, there still isn’t that much clarity. I did offer an opinion in my Monday wrap of the test, but couldn’t help wondering during the course of the day if maybe I shouldn’t phone the copy people in the office in Johannesburg and ask them to place a question mark at the end of the headline, “A significant moment for Bok rugby”.
It felt like it might be a significant moment while the Boks were talking to the media straight after the Aviva Stadium clash. Both coach Heyneke Meyer and skipper Jean de Villiers were right in saying that the fightback from an utterly forgettable first half was important in the development of the team.
And yet while that second half gave us plenty of reason to be positive, the game overall was a bit like this year in general for the Boks – a "curate’s egg", meaning it was good in parts but bad in lots of parts too. Yes – it might well be seen in the future as a significant turning point, but maybe we should wait until that future arrives before actually saying it.
These end-of-year tours have been known to inspire wishful thinking among journalists who have covered the Boks through a fluctuating season. In 2008 many of us were just so happy that the Boks under Peter de Villiers had moved away from their apparent earlier intent to change the fundamentals of their game that we found it hard not to applaud Ruan Pienaar every time he kicked the ball in Cardiff.
That was the first game of that end-of-year tour, and also Pienaar’s first opportunity to start at No 10 at test level. So determined were the Boks to go back to their so-called traditional strength of percentage rugby that they over-compensated and Pienaar, under instruction, kicked virtually every ball. Back home there were many who thought the game was rubbish, but most of the guys covering the tour treated it like a seismic event just because of what it signified about the Bok intent.
I’m not sure if there is universal agreement on this, but for me, Meyer’s most recent selections have taken away a lot of the issues that there might have been with his coaching. It took him a long time to drop Morne Steyn, but eventually he did, and Johan Goosen, Elton Jantjies and now Pat Lambie have all had some game time.
By the time Jantjies got on the field (shortly before halftime) at Soccer City, the Bok forwards had blown a gasket, but the other two have both done enough during their time spent on the field to back up the theory that selection rather than any emphatic paradigm shift can introduce the variations that we felt were missing from the Bok play earlier in the year.
But emphatic is probably the least apt word to use in association with Dublin, for while the Boks did save their blushes with that commanding second-half performance, overall it was not a day without quite a bit of blemish. And we also need to remember that while the Boks are depleted at the moment, they weren’t nearly as much so as Ireland, who did well to still be competitive after losing half their first-choice team to injury.
If all of this suggests I can’t quite make up my mind about the Boks, it’s not completely accurate. They are a young team and they did show great potential with the dramatic second-half turnaround. I do get the sense they are building to something good under the new coach. It’s just that, like Cardiff in 2008, maybe there wasn’t really quite enough there for us to start imitating the hacks from England, who give the impression they think their team is championship material every time they win.
Just two quick observations about the Dublin game before we consign it to history. Let me say first up that I have been as critical as everyone else of Meyer’s decision to stick with Zane Kirchner at fullback, but every time the guy plays, the more convinced I become that maybe the coach is going to be vindicated. There are still some who slam Kirchner, but it’s hard to do so when he catches every ball and is so good kicking out of hand.
He may not be JPR Williams as a counter-attacker, but in the conditions over here, he more than adequately does the job asked of him.
The second observation is prompted by a conversation I had with a New Zealand journalist in Edinburgh on Monday. He felt the game in Dublin was garbage, and he felt that the problem with the Boks is that they are not quite sure of which game to play at the moment – whether to give the critics what they want by playing running rugby, or whether to bludgeon the opposition up front and kick to the corners.
And maybe, just maybe, there is something in that. What we all really want is just the right balance and some variation, but previous Bok coaches will tell you the South African players do have a weird psyche. Perhaps the Kiwi hack is right and the Boks are just incapable of being eclectic.