Boks play like Boycott batted
And so we come to the last match and last build-up week of 12 in Heyneke Meyer’s first year in charge of the Springboks. The 21-10 win over Scotland that has preceded it, like the one before that over Ireland, pretty much sums up Meyer’s first season, with the performance being excellent in parts and poor in others.
Meyer loves to use the cricketing analogy about building an innings, so we should turn to that in looking at Murrayfield, and the year in general.
Put quite simply, what the Boks have threatened to do frequently this year but failed to do all but once, is convert the foundation into a big innings of substance.
The Boks just aren’t converting at the moment, and while I do hear the mitigating circumstances, if a batsman at test match level failed to convert as much as the Boks are doing, then it would be a concern. Look back at the year and witness the occasions the Boks have been on the verge of really smashing an opponent only for the pressure on the jugular to be released.
The most obvious example, before this last week, was Meyer’s second match in charge against England in Johannesburg. The Boks were sublime in the first half hour of that match, and when they ran up a big lead they looked en route to the sort of one-sided result that we saw when Victor Matfield led the Boks in the final Tri-Nations game of 2008 against Australia at the same venue.
But instead of destroying England the Boks ended up hanging on, and it took a brilliant try from JP Pietersen to eventually win the game and clinch the series. That try, by the way, is one of the few that depart from the would-be title of a DVD of Bok tries in 2012 – “Habana and the driving maul”.
Sticking with the cricketing analogy, the question that should be asked is – will the Boks be like Jacques Kallis, and go on to be great once they have gone through the barrier and put it together over an entire 80 minutes? I am inclined to answer that in the affirmative, but at the same time you have to acknowledge that South African rugby is also seeing a lot of false dawns.
Meyer reckons that the five-try walloping of Australia at Loftus back in September was the closest his team came to perfection this year. But then in saying that he almost at the same time admitted what is true, which is that the Australians tend to regard the Highveld in the same way that a cat regards a swimming pool, the difference being that the Wallabies are forced to go into the water whereas a cat is too intelligent to go anywhere near.
It looked as if the Boks were going to produce another one of those showings in Edinburgh. If ever they had effectively built an innings and were poised to flourish, it was in the Murrayfield game. I passed a fellow journalist on my way to my cup of halftime soup who lamented the amount of kicking the Boks were doing, but I assured him that the tactic was the right one.
“You will see, in the second half the Scots will have been strangled and the Boks will run riot and win big,” I responded.
It looked like the view might be vindicated when Adriaan Strauss went over for his intercept try to make it 21-3. The tactics would have been spot on, and would have been regarded as such by the demanding Bok supporters, had the Boks kept that up. They had given the Scots little room to breathe in those first 50 minutes, and the tactic of kicking into the corner had given the hosts no opportunity to get into the game and get their crowd behind them as had been the case there in 2008 and 2010.
But like a batsman who is goes about the building of his innings patiently and methodically and then throws it away just when well set, the lack of substance in the bank then left the Boks looking a little short when they let the Scots in for a set-piece try. Somehow playing a full 80 minutes seems beyond them.
Meyer has said often enough that the fitness needs to improve, so perhaps that is one reason. It has also been a long year, and unlike the All Blacks, the Boks have stuck pretty much with the same starting team in this last month of the season. It is also Meyer’s first year in charge and he is rebuilding. He always said this would be a tough year that he just has to get through.
But for every mitigating circumstance and excuse there is a counter-point, and the one to that last argument should come by way of a reminder that Jake White was also rebuilding when he took over the Boks from Rudolf Straeuli. And yet his young team of that season won the Tri-Nations at his first attempt.
It might be argued that White never had to put up with the injuries that Meyer has, and it is also true that like most other national coaches, White also had a longer period with the players ahead of the season.
White, Peter de Villiers and Straeuli all started their tenures with a three-week training camp. Meyer had five days.
And yet for all the sympathy I do have for Meyer, there also has to be recognition that he is coaching a country that boasts a wealth of rugby talent. Excuses start to wear thin if they are repeated too often, and I cannot disagree with those who accuse the Boks of lacking ambition.
The problem is that, to return to the cricketing analogy, if you opt to bat with the aesthetic appeal of Geoffrey Boycott on a flat deck and against a team the equivalent of Bangladesh, you simply have to press on to that big score or accept the flak. Boycott wasn’t pretty but he got the crease occupation part right. The Boks aren’t doing that.