It looks ominous for England
Of the three coaches in charge of top southern hemisphere nations in last week’s opening round of June internationals, it was arguably Heyneke Meyer who should have been the most pleased.
England aren’t the European champions, that status belongs at the moment to Wales, who were beaten by Australia. And the Springboks weren’t always that convincing in the first test at Mr Price Kings Park, and if the game had stopped at halftime, most of what was written about the performance would have been negative.
But the Boks, reacting to what was understood to be a halftime tongue-lashing from a frustrated coach, took control in the second half. The chasm wasn’t that great in the end on the scoreboard, but if you use the logic applied by previous Bok coach Peter de Villiers after a Tri-Nations loss to Australia in Durban last August, the South Africans certainly smashed them on the field.
Why Meyer should have been happier than Wallaby coach Robbie Deans or his New Zealand counterpart Steve Hansen was because of what the victory meant. For the other two it may have been a new beginning in the sense that it was the start of a new four year cycle following the World Cup, and Hansen was head coach for the first time, but there wasn’t as much that was new under the sun for them as there was for Meyer.
For the former Bulls mentor it was the first time he had been in the coaching box for a major match for nearly four years. It had been a build-up week that had been made exceedingly difficult by the outcry over some of his selections. This was hardly new, for it is something that just comes with the territory for Bok coaches, but for Meyer it may have been particularly significant because of the pressure he was under.
With just five days to prepare for the first test, Meyer was both rushed and nervous, and he went into the cauldron of international rugby not quite knowing what to expect and a lot to lose. The emotion he showed in singing the national anthem before the game both betrayed the tension he was feeling and his passion for the most important job in South African rugby.
So it must have been with a massive sigh of relief that he greeted the final whistle and victory in his first match in charge. It would have considerably eased the pressure on him as his team moved to Johannesburg for Saturday’s second test at Coca-Cola Park. That Durban win wasn’t just another win, it was a result of massive import.
But if England and their supporters thought Meyer might be satisfied with what was delivered by his team, they would have been thinking again this week, with the Bok coach making it clear at press conferences that he most emphatically wasn’t content with what was delivered by his players. He wants more, and if you consider that he reckoned that Durban only saw 5% of his team’s potential, then it has to be seen as an ominous sign by England.
They have been full of fighting talk and promises to make good where they fell down in the first test too. Hooker Dylan Hartley led the charge at the start of the week, saying that he felt his teammates were better than the Springboks and vowing that the order of things between these teams will be redressed at Coca-Cola Park.
It was a theme that was started at the Kings Park post-match press conference, where their coach Stuart Lancaster said that his men now knew what it was like to play against the Springboks, they understood where they had made mistakes, and had even started talking about where they were going to get it right while sitting in the change-room immediately after the game.
To be true to their word though England are going to have to make significant improvements in several areas for the truth is that South Africa do appear to have more potential for improvement than England do. There were a lot of points left on the table during that period of second half dominance last week, and while some made a fuss of the England attacking potential, it was the Boks who produced all the line breaks.
Better finishing and a more clinical goalkicking performance last week would have seen the Boks win by at least 15 points, which is a thrashing at this level of the game. And this week there is no reason why the Boks should start with the lethargy with which they did the first test, as the rust that was inevitable for a first match together should by now have been shaken off.
For England to win they are going to have to make a massive improvement to their scrumming, and they are going to have to find a way to stop the Boks big men from getting go-forward across the gainline, something they managed to do almost at will last week.
The recall of Patrick Lambie at fullback for the injured Zane Kirchner definitely doesn’t weaken the Bok team, and if the hosts can bash out a physical advantage early, a big win could be in prospect. It won’t be in quite the proportions of the massacre of the Wallabies here in 2008, for England have too much to play for and the Boks are still a relatively new team. But it should be emphatic enough to further ease the pressure weighing down on the Bok coach.
SOUTH AFRICA: Patrick Lambie, JP Pietersen, Jean de Villiers (capt), Frans Steyn, Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Juandre Kruger, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira. Replacments: Adriaan Strauss, Werner Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Keegan Daniel, Ruan Pienaar, Wynand Olivier, Bjorn Basson.
ENGLAND: Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Jonathan Joseph, Manusamoa Tuilagi, David Strettle, Toby Flood, Ben Youngs, Ben Morgan, Chris Robshaw (capt), Tom Johnson, Geoff Parling, Mouritz Botha, Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler. Replacements: Lee Mears, Alex Corbisiero, Tom Palmer, Phil Dowson, Lee Dickson, Owen Farrell, Alex Goode.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).
Prediction: Boks by eight to 15.