Heyneke needs to trust his decision
No Springbok coach is ever going to satisfy everyone, and it is a rare thing for any individual person to be completely happy with a national team selection.
Heyneke Meyer hasn’t left me completely content after the announcement of his team to face Ireland in the first tour match in Dublin on Saturday. Those who saw my preferred team up on the watercooler interactive forum before the team announcement will know that I backed Juan de Jongh at outside centre and Jaco Taute to play fullback.
That Meyer has chosen Taute as an outside centre for this game is a surprise in that sources close to the squad did leak the information not long after the Currie Cup final that Taute would be playing at No 15 on the tour, with De Jongh back in the midfield alongside Jean de Villiers. And Meyer appeared to confirm it when answering my question at a press conference last week – yes, he said, he was looking at Taute as a fullback from now on.
So why is he still in the midfield? Well, firstly we need to remember that Meyer did follow on from his affirmation of Taute as the future at fullback by saying that because of the injury to Bryan Habana he feels he may be a bit short at outside centre. And it is also probably not a good idea to make too many changes to such a new and relatively young Bok team, so the retention of Taute can be justified for the sake of continuity.
Then there is the question of what Zane Kirchner brings to the party when he is at fullback. To my mind Taute is the better player by some distance and also has greater potential for the future. But he doesn’t possess the out-of-hand kicking skills that Kirchner does. And we know that Meyer is only a recent convert to the Pat Lambie fan club, with the Sharks player’s tactical kicking being the area he felt needed work.
Meyer quite clearly feels Lambie’s tactical kicking has improved, because he has now selected him to start at No 10, but perhaps he just isn’t convinced enough to risk also taking a fullback who might have tactical kicking weaknesses into the same match. That’s one possible explanation for the fullback selection; maybe there are several more.
What I am 100% sure about though, is that Meyer has made the right choice in selecting Lambie as his starting flyhalf. It was a selection that should have been made after his match-winning performances in the 2010 Currie Cup final.
I wrote a column at the end of the Castle Rugby Championship pleading with John Plumtree to play Lambie at flyhalf. In my view that was all that was preventing Meyer from playing him there. I argued that Meyer might just need to be reminded of what Lambie could do in the position.
Plumtree delivered, and so did Lambie – and then some. Those who somehow blame Lambie for the Sharks’ failure to win the Currie Cup final against Western Province probably don’t understand that flyhalves don’t jump in lineouts. It was in the lineouts that the domestic decider was won and lost.
Okay, so the dissenters will put forward what looks a good argument. They will point out that Elton Jantjies played as a replacement in the Soccer City test against the All Blacks and that selecting Lambie means he leapfrogs the other player in the pecking order. Many of those same people said the same when Johan Goosen was selected ahead of Jantjies.
But here is the thing: if you look back at Meyer’s selections through the year, that pecking order has never been as clear-cut as you may think it is. For a start, take a look at the reserve bench for Meyer’s first test in charge, against England at Kings Park back in June. Lambie was effectively the back-up flyhalf that day to Morne Steyn, and there was no Jantjies in the mix.
That there was also no Goosen on the bench that day was entirely down to one fact – he was out injured, and had been since the Cheetahs played the Highlanders in Super Rugby. Meyer said earlier in the year that he rated Goosen for the future and even said at a media briefing in Cape Town that he would be surprised if Goosen wasn’t the man wearing the No 10 at the 2015 World Cup.
Meyer’s plans to ease Goosen into the test team were only held up by the injury, and it was that injury that saw Jantjies later called up to sit on the Bok bench. When Goosen came back and was then backed, it wasn’t a reshuffling of the pecking order – it was just that the preferred player had recovered from injury.
So there really isn’t anything sinister about Jantjies’ omission. Meyer probably just felt – like I did – that Jantjies wasn’t that great in the closing rounds of the Currie Cup, whereas Lambie was superb.
But there is one change that Meyer needs to make in his whole approach to the flyhalf question. He needs to stop talking about each selection as if that player is on trial, and decide who he wants to back and then stick with that player.
If Lambie makes a few mistakes on Saturday and then gets blamed for the defeat, should he be thrown away? It’s debatable, because those who have watched him should agree that he plays far more good games than bad ones. And at some stage Meyer needs to allow a player to settle.
Lambie shouldn’t just be backed for Dublin; he needs to be the starting pivot the following week in Murrayfield too, and regardless of what happens this week.
This tour shouldn’t just be about results. It should be about assessing the development of the new combinations and the progress of the individual players. The best way to do that is to back them over an extended run.