Why Boks may soar in 2013
It is nearly a month and a half until the international season kicks off, but both Springbok head coach Heyneke Meyer and forwards/attack coach Johan van Graan mentioned to journalists this week how impatient they are to see the 2013 campaign get started.
That’s a far cry from this time last year, when for a start Van Graan was still contracted to the Bulls, and was busy negotiating himself out of that contract. Meyer, at the time, was obviously involved in those negotiations, and he was also talking to Victor Matfield about a possible return to rugby, negotiating with Japanese clubs and their Springbok players about their availability, getting to know the players through visits to the various franchises, and searching high and low for a Springbok captain.
For him, back then, the international season could wait, and he gave that impression with his obvious nervousness at press conferences. It was completely understandable – on top of everything else, he hadn’t coached at a high level for four years, so he had been away from the coal-face. He was taking charge of a team he had never worked with before and then going straight into a series against England.
But it’s not just because the Boks are starting this season against Italy and Scotland as opposed to England that is inspiring the eagerness to get started and the much more relaxed mood being transmitted by the coaches. Instead it is the confidence that comes with having broken the ice of the massive pressure that comes with the Bok job and learning to live with it, and the knowledge that this time the preparation has been thorough.
Anyone who has written an examination of any kind will know how different it feels when you go in prepared and having studied properly as opposed to when you’ve not used your time effectively and have had to spot or cram. The same can be said for the marathon runner who gets to the final week knowing he has done his training and is busy with an effective taper in contrast to the runner who feels, even though he knows deep down it is too late to make a difference, he needs to squeeze one last run in.
That is the essential difference between the Springbok management team of 2012 and the one with which the players would have had their first dealings of the new year in Cape Town earlier this week. Given how much work they appear to have done – Meyer has travelled far and wide for research purposes and all the assistants have been busy too – the Bok management are probably now in a situation a marathon runner is in when he feels he has done too much too soon and may peak too early.
Except that they’re not marathon runners, so they don’t have to worry about that. Most post-isolation Springbok coaches – and this includes even Jake White, who enjoyed a successful first season – had a period in their first year where they got that shaky-as-a-leaf feeling in the face of the pressure, and it inhibited their confidence and self-expression.
Nick Mallett might have been an exception in that his self-confidence, intelligence and astuteness carried him through a first season and a bit where winning momentum just carried him before the self-doubt in the face of pressure arrived much later, with the injuries and political interference.
White and Peter de Villiers are the examples of two coaches who were far more confident at the end of their reigns than they were in the beginning. For them, the pressure of the job had become old hat, and they were able to deal with it. I expect something similar from Meyer.
Not that there aren’t concerns. For a start, Morne Steyn is playing well again and everyone is starting to punt him, but at international level is he going to play closer to the gainline and thus bring the players around him into the game on attack and engage opposing defensive systems? Patrick Lambie played well on the end-of-year tour and he is my preference for No 10, and he is kicking his goals, but his allround form is becoming a concern.
For me it appears that Lambie is playing deeper than he used to, as if he thinks he is playing every game in the northern hemisphere, which was where his Bok career took on an upper trajectory last year. It may partially, although not completely, explain why the Sharks have suddenly contracted the Stormers’ disease from 2012 of not being able to score tries.
I’ve seen the Sharks play in the flesh four times this year so far, and in only one of those games have they crossed the opposition line. Listening to Meyer speak earlier this week, it is clear he wants to evolve the Boks to a place where they score tries, so he will know there are areas that need working on.
This time though he has some space to work and he has the nucleus of a team that has played for him before. He also has a captain he trusts and who is playing well again. Bismarck du Plessis was training again on Monday, and so was Willem Alberts. Touch wood, but Meyer should have more selection options than he had for most of last year’s Rugby Championship.
But most of all – and this is what inspires my optimistic outlook – Meyer will have confidence.