Boks looking for the perfect game
One thing Heyneke Meyer will know by now is that the Springbok coaching job doesn’t get any easier after the team wins -- all it does is increase the expectation and create pressure to chase perfection.
It is still too early in his stint as coach and also too early in the season for perfection to be an anticipation of this young Springbok team, but Meyer will know after last week’s match in Johannesburg that his men will need to lift their performance levels in Saturday’s final test against England at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium if the critics are to be satisfied.
It is doubtful the Boks have performed better in the last decade, let alone the last four years, than they did for the first half hour of the Coca-Cola Park test. With Meyer’s plan working to perfection, and the big loose-forwards making some headway across the gainline almost every time they touched the ball, the England defenders were in disarray and the backs looked good when they were presented with an advantage in numbers.
Had Morne Steyn had his goalkicking boots on, and had the Boks taken one more try scoring opportunity, England could well have been laid to waste like Australia were in Johannesburg in 2008. But rugby can sometimes be as funny a game as cricket is, and there were a few little breaks early in the first half that changed momentum.
The injuries that forced changes later on -- it wasn’t about voluntary substitutions, the Boks were stymied by a slew of unexpected injuries -- further robbed them of the go forward they had enjoyed earlier, and in the end they did well to hold their composure late in the game to score the try that clinched the result.
Instead of the rave reviews they would have received had the second half been played out like the first, the Boks were slated in some quarters, with many fans and critics expressing concern at their inability in the first two tests to produce a full 80-minute performance.
If you look at the Super Rugby schedule, with tough local derbies, that the players have had foisted on them, the sensible might well argue that expecting them to play with the sort of intensity they displayed in the first half in Joburg and the second half in Durban is not on. Neither of New Zealand or Australia have fired all the time in their respective series of international matches either, and both came closer to losing last week than the Boks did.
But if Meyer and his coaching staff agree with the contention that critics are expecting too much, they are not prepared to say so. Meyer said, rather ominously for England and future opponents, that the Boks are only 10% of the way towards where he wants them to be, and he is looking for them to multiply by two in Port Elizabeth what they did in Durban and Johannesburg.
In other words, as Francois Hougaard pointed out in midweek, the aim is to produce an 80 minute performance, and with that many minutes now separating the Boks from what is going to be a tough Rugby Championship, it goes without saying that Meyer will be expecting the slick performance that would serve as the ideal dress rehearsal.
There is always adversity in the Bok job, however, and there have been events this week that have introduced a few question marks over their ability to produce the complete performance he is looking for. The injuries haven’t helped, particularly the one to Willem Alberts, who played a colossal role in the opening two wins.
There is a lot of pressure on young Jacques Potgieter to produce the barn-storming performance that Alberts did, and so much of the Bok game depends on he and Marcell Coetzee and Pierre Spies being able to get the team across the advantage line.
Wynand Olivier made the most tackes last week even though he was only on the field for one half. That is not necessarily a compliment to Olivier, but an indication that England may see his channel as a weakness when he is on the field and thus play towards him. This will be his 37th cap and he has never been under more pressure to perform, with failure here almost certainly the deathknell to any chances of him enjoying any kind of extended international career.
Morne Steyn is also under pressure to improve his goalkicking, which has gone walkabout just lately, and with the weather forecast predicting all sorts of vile abominations for Saturday afternoon, with rain, swirling winds and lightening, this should be a crucial area of the game.
Indeed, that weather forecast, which stopped just short of suggesting the earth might open up and fire leap out of the surrounding mountains, might just prove to be the biggest obstacle to the Boks improving on what they did in milder environments in the last two weeks. For they have proved in both matches that when they are at their best they are significantly better than England, and if that is not the case on Saturday it will be because weather was a leveller.
SOUTH AFRICA: Gio Aplon, JP Pietersen, Jean de Villiers (capt), Wynand Olivier, Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Jacques Potgieter, Marcell Coetzee, Juandre Kruger, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira. Replacements: Adriaan Strauss, Werner Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Ryan Kankowski, Ruan Pienaar, Elton Jantjes, Bjorn Basson.
ENGLAND: Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Jonathan Joseph, Manusamoa Tuilagi, Ben Foden, Toby Flood, Danny Care, Thomas Waldrom, James Haskell, Tom Johnson, Geoff Parling, Tom Palmer, Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley (capt), Alex Corbiseiro. Replacements: Lee Mears, Joe Marler, Mouritz Botha, Phil Dowson, Lee Dickson, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt.
Prediction: Boks by 10