Holding off judgement of Meyer’s way
The strong Sharks surge at the end of the Super Rugby season reignited the ongoing debate about the way the Springboks play, and it has intensified the focus on Heyneke Meyer’s strategy as the kick-off to the Castle Rugby Championship nears.
Although the Sharks played elementary, no-nonsense finals rugby to beat the Stormers, with their set-phase play and kicking game proving the difference in the semifinal, and got beaten playing the same rugby in the Hamilton decider, the enterprising offload-orientated game they employed before that is the one that has stuck in the mind of the rugby public.
It’s not the first time the Sharks have been at the sharp end of the lobby for a change to a more expansive – for want of a better expression – approach from the Boks. Their performances up until the final in 2007 and in winning the Currie Cup in 2010 similarly aided the faction who believe the Boks must stop aping the Germany and Arsenal soccer teams of old by sacrificing all vestiges of enterprise in the quest for a winning edge.
Meyer did not help kill off the perception that he is all about boring percentage rugby when, at the press conference held to announce his appointment, he said that the only type of rugby he is interested in is winning rugby, and neither did other similar nuggets intimating that rugby is a basic, uncomplicated game that requires the most basic approach.
But pre-Meyer expectation may not correspond with reality in the same way that the pre-Peter de Villiers expectation didn’t correspond with reality. Remember how, when Div first took up his position, there was so much talk of running rugby and abandoning structure? It didn’t happen. And the first evidence offered to us of the Meyer way in the England series suggests we may not see the deadly dull rugby people are expecting from the Meyer era either.
Skipper Jean de Villiers and forwards coach Johan van Graan, who doubles as an attack coach under Meyer at the Boks, have both spoken about the progress that was shown with the two excellent counter-attacking tries that helped turn the tide in the Springboks' favour in the Durban game, plus the 30 minutes of spell-binding rugby produced at the start of the second. And they are not wrong.
Meyer’s continued preference for the Morne Steyn mould of flyhalf will be considered by many to be the wrong message if the Boks really want to increase their attacking potency. There is a perception that Steyn stands too deep to ask questions of the opposing defensive system and bring those around him into the game.
Certainly there were stages in the last test against England in Port Elizabeth that Steyn played really poorly, with his goalkicking failures appearing to impact on his confidence. Based purely on that game, the detractors are right – watching the Boks that day was about as interesting as trainspotting would be on a remote narrow-gauge railway line in the Karoo.
But perception might again be short of the whole truth, for the team captain was also right when he pointed out that Steyn has improved many aspects of his attacking game. And even if he hasn’t, the fact that there is a drive to get him to do so surely sends out a positive message.
The Boks failed in the Port Elizabeth game because their first phase wasn’t as strong as in the previous tests, because the absence of Willem Alberts (and Frans Steyn) meant they were unable to get the same momentum across the gainline and limited Marcell Coetzee’s efficiency at the breakdown, and because the tactical kicking of scrumhalf Francois Hougaard was poor to non-existent.
In other words it just didn’t come together. There were too many tactical imperatives that weren’t met, and that game may have vindicated those of Meyer’s detractors who will argue that his approach depends too much on forward dominance.
But then how effective is the Sharks' game when they don’t have a forward platform to launch off? In the early part of the Super Rugby season, when the big-name forwards were absent, they never played the rugby, or achieved the success, that they did when Alberts, Ryan Kankowski and, most importantly, Beast Mtawarira, were present.
Meyer is surely clever enough to realise the advantages of drawing on the Sharks’ skill-set – they are the undisputed offload kings of SA rugby – but the Meyer game, when perfected, is not boring. Ask former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, whose Reds team nearly copped 100 points from the Bulls in 2007, or the Stormers players who were smashed 75-14 the year before that.
The fans at Coca-Cola Park also weren’t bored in the first half against England and the Bulls of recent vintage have given the impression that they have been prepared to sacrifice elements of their defensive game for the purposes of improving attack, so let’s give Meyer and his team a chance to show us their intention before we make a judgement.