Great start, but let’s keep perspective
When he was Springbok coach, Nick Mallett once said that the media in this country was equally too quick to shower purple praise on players who had done well in one game as it was to condemn players who had played poorly in a specific match.
It is because I recall Mallett saying that, and I agreed with him at the time, that you will have to excuse me if I don’t quite engage as many superlatives in describing the latest Springbok performance as some of my colleagues might.
After the game at Kings Park on Saturday there was a rush of media on Willie le Roux in the mixed zone. He’s clearly the most popular new kid on the block. And boy, there was plenty to enthuse about from his game against Italy, and I would agree with those who said he brought new energy from the back. Heyneke Meyer was lauded for bringing him into the team, and rightly so.
The selection for the Italy test, as I wrote, helped Meyer shed some of the image that he has of being too conservative. I’m not sure that perception was entirely fair anyway, and Bok captain Jean de Villiers summed up my view when he pointed out at the Friday press conference that Meyer never really had a chance last year to be experimental or innovative.
The Bok management spent the entire 2012 international season chasing their tails. Not only did they start the year with a much tougher series against England, they also started it off a zero base in terms of planning. The bulk of the coaching support staff had been committed to the Bulls until six days before the first England test.
Meyer said it at the time, and it was to prove correct – the first year was always going to be about survival, and no more than that. And when they drew with Argentina and then lost twice consecutively in Australasia in the Castle Rugby Championship, it became even more imperative that the Boks just found a way to win, regardless of how pretty the method was of achieving it.
After the big defeat to the All Blacks at Soccer City, Meyer was under considerable pressure when his squad went to the United Kingdom and Ireland for the end-of-year tour, as much was being made of the fact that his record for his first season was struggling to break even at the 50% mark. It was only when his team edged home against England in the last game that his first year in charge was accepted to be relatively successful.
When I joined some colleagues in having coffee with Meyer at the Bok team hotel on the Sunday morning after the Twickenham test last November, he agreed that the three matches against second-tier opposition would represent a much easier start to 2013 than what he was presented with in his first season.
At the time though he was still uncertain about whether he would be prepared to experiment with his selections. We need to build combinations ahead of the Rugby Championship, he said.
Fortunately he didn’t stick too closely to that, although he did have the benefit of having six of his eight forwards from the London game back for Kings Park before Willem Alberts withdrew on the eve of the match with a slight injury. It’s always easier to innovate and experiment around a settled core, and while Jean de Villiers was the only survivor at the back from Twickenham, the Boks were at least reasonably assured of a solid forward platform to help ease newcomers into their first taste of test rugby.
Meyer deserves full marks for being prepared to innovate and make proper use of the opportunity that has been presented him. The Boks did show what can be achieved when you have pace out wide. Why I’m not going to do cartwheels of delight just yet though is because, in almost every sense, both Meyer and the players who impressed at Kings Park still have it all to do.
In this country praise can turn to condemnation in the blink of an eye, and it frequently amazes me how just one dropped pass can sometimes cause people to have memory lapses that completely erase what they may have thought before it happened.
Matches against New Zealand and Australia bring different pressures to matches against Italy. The Italians are no longer the easy touches they were when they were smashed 101-0 at the same Kings Park in 1999, but Kings Park is also not in Rome, which is where most of their better performances have been produced.
In my preview to the game on Saturday I wrote that the Boks normally thrive in a season where they have an impressive start, but then I was reminded that in 1999, which turned out to be a bit of a nightmare, they won 74-3 in Port Elizabeth and then 101-0 in Durban in the opening games.
More apt to my argument, it was on the basis of performances turned in during those matches that some players were later pushed by the media and politicians, with the omission of Deon Kayser for the “summer test” that followed against Wales in Cardiff sparking the controversy that many felt derailed that year’s World Cup campaign.
Mallett’s selection against Italy had served the same purpose as Meyer’s last week – he wanted to spread the net. But in his mind he wasn’t yet certain that someone like Kayser was ready to play Tri-Nations, and he wanted to ease him in later.
Matches against Italy, Scotland and Samoa are useful to build confidence, but we mustn’t get too carried away by equating them with clashes against first-tier opponents, and the real test will come for the players who starred this past weekend when they get to play in the Rugby Championship. I do believe in this coach, but it will be the same with Meyer’s selection policy – will he be as innovative against the All Blacks?
Le Roux is undoubtedly a fine rugby player, but Meyer hinted last week that he sees his way forward as an impact sub. He may well be too risky for Meyer to back as a starting fullback against New Zealand or Australia. Only time will answer that question, so let’s just play the waiting game before we make the mistake of building new players into world beaters after just one test match.
If we were to all end up singing a completely different tune a few months down the line, it wouldn’t be the first time in Springbok post-isolation history that it has happened…