Highveld tests may retard Boks
Okay let’s start off with the positives, of which there are several following the two weeks that the Springboks have spent in Australasia, before we dip into the inevitable ‘buts’ and qualifications, for there are also enough of those.
Firstly, there is the prospect of a strong finish to the Castle Rugby Championship that will add respectability to Heyneke Meyer’s first year in charge. While there has been a lot of negative comment about the new Bok coach, I have a sneaky feeling that Meyer might now be through the worst bit of his initial season.
The way Australia are playing at the moment, and given how petrified the Aussies are of places like Loftus, the Boks should start with a great chance of winning on 29 September no matter what game-plan Heyneke employs.
Assuming they win against Argentina, which they should do, the All Blacks will also be coming to South Africa for the Soccer City clash a week later already assured of the Championship trophy. What motivation are they going to have to see off a bunch of psyched up Boks playing in front of nearly 100 000 of their equally hyped countrymen?
Of course, as always, there will be that altitude thing playing in favour of the Boks, as well as the fact that this time the All Blacks won’t be coming to South Africa directly from New Zealand, but via Argentina. There wasn’t enough between the teams in Dunedin this past weekend to suggest that the Kiwis can just pitch up and beat the Boks regardless of whatever obstacles are stacked against them.
Sitting where I am now, three weeks out from the match, I make the Boks favourites, and they should be going into the clash off a win against the 'Wobblies'. That should mean Meyer ends his first Rugby Championship on a similar high to the one that saved Peter de Villiers from the wolves in 2008 (remember that 53-8 win over the Wallabies) and Jake White in 2006.
On the evidence of the last two weeks in Perth and Dunedin, there are also potentially easy solutions to the problems related to Meyer’s much maligned game-plan. For a start, Johan Goosen does now have 30 minutes of test rugby behind him.
Not just that, the half an hour of test rugby has come against Australia and New Zealand away from home. So there really isn’t anything preventing Meyer from starting with Goosen in Pretoria and Soweto, and the young Free Stater has enough arrows in his quiver to show that the failings overseas might have been as much about the failings of the incumbent No 10 as they were the failings of the game-plan.
As I have written before, Meyer doesn’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel, he just needs to introduce more variation, and new personnel can go some way to providing it for him. Goosen is certainly better equipped at the moment to bring the players around him into the game than Morne Steyn is.
Another positive is the confidence that the young forward pack should have gained from turning in progressively better performances during the Australasian leg. In both Perth and Dunedin they were significantly better than in Mendoza before that.
And while positives are flowing like runs of Hashim Amla’s bat, let’s also factor in that as well as the performances hopefully steadily improving, the team should be getting stronger in increments as we proceed into the second half of the international rugby year. Bismarck du Plessis won’t be back for the November tour, but JP Pietersen should be, and maybe Fourie du Preez too.
But just like every rose bush has at least one thorn, every tour post-mortem has to have a qualification or two. And when both matches ended in defeat, it goes without saying that there are several of those, not the least of them being that we are assuming that Meyer has seen the light regarding his flyhalves.
We must also be careful not to read too much into the much improved showing in Dunedin. If the Boks were to slide back to mediocrity in the coming weeks it would not be the first time a Dunedin game represented a false dawn. The Boks lost narrowly in Dunedin under Rudolf Straeuli in 2003 without it proving the turn-around some people thought it would be.
No-one has ever doubted the Springbok ability to get up for a one-off.
What they need to do now, and here the reference is to the forwards who were so magnificent in Dunedin, is do it consistently. The coming matches, with the Pretoria and Soweto games being followed by tests in Dublin, Edinburgh and London, will provide an interesting test of their ability to mould into a consistently good pack.
But referring to the end of year tour brings up my biggest concern – while playing two tests on the Highveld undeniably gives the Boks an edge, does it help the growth of the Bok game? At altitude the kicking game employed by Meyer these past few months will work simply because in the rarefied air the ball flies further. It’s one of the reasons the Bulls are so tough to beat at Loftus.
The next World Cup is not going to be played at altitude so wins playing the Meyer game may only create a false impression and do no more than bring back a bit of self-respect to Bok rugby - okay, most of us will take that at the moment - in the short-term while opening up the prospect that this season’s cycle gets repeated in 2013. So maybe we need to be careful of what we read into these next two matches.