Lots for Heyneke to think about
Skipper Jean de Villiers said last week that defeat in the third test would mean the Springboks having to start from scratch again as they look ahead to The Rugby Championship. They didn’t lose so maybe it’s not really a return to the starting point, but after the draw to England, there is certainly plenty of work to do.
Listening to some of the things Bok coach Heyneke Meyer said afterwards, with his honest admission that he might need to look at himself as much as he looked at the team in assessing the path forward, you might almost have imagined that he was the coach of Ireland, who lost by 60 points to the All Black, and not a team that extended the unbeaten run against England to 10 matches.
But while it might have been a bit melodramatic, Meyer was nonetheless right in suggesting some of his own decisions need to be scrutinised. For a start, when Willem Alberts is not present, there is an imbalance to the back-row, with Marcell Coetzee having to fulfill much more of a carrying role, which meant he neglected the cleaning of the rucks.
Thankfully, barring further injury during the remainder of Super Rugby, Alberts should be back by the time The Rugby Championship kicks off. On the evidence of what we saw at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Alberts is a much better bet as a No 7 flank than Jacques Potgieter, though to be fair to the Bulls player, the match was his first in several weeks as he returned from injury.
Although he said beforehand that he would be sharp, there are always inevitable cobwebs after a lengthy layoff, and Potgieter did show signs of rust and did not look the same player that was so impressive in earlier stages of Super Rugby.
After the three matches against England, the debate over the fetcher flank should also be continued. Coetzee will be good enough in time, but with the ball coming back so slowly both in Port Elizabeth and in the first test in Durban, the Boks could do with Heinrich Brussow’s special skills. When Alberts is there to help them dominate the gainline battle, it is not so much of an issue, but when he is not it becomes problematic.
But loose-forward is not nearly as big a problem area as scrumhalf, where Francois Hougaard had his second poor game in three starts. The longer the season draws on so the argument that the Bulls No 9 has spent too much time playing wing to be considered an international class No 9 continues to gain currency.
Hougaard’s poor game did not help Morne Steyn, with the flyhalf struggling through a confidence crisis. His disappointing goalkicking form is only part of it, for it was in general play that Steyn struggled the most in Port Elizabeth. He appears to have rediscovered that old habit of standing too deep in the pocket, even on attack, and that has the impact of taking the players around him out of the game.
He was better though when Ruan Pienaar came on, and unless Meyer is prepared to blood Johan Goosen almost immediately (the Cheetahs wonder-boy should be ready by August), pairing Pienaar with Steyn from the start could be the salve to Meyer’s conundrum at halfback. Pienaar’s kicking game at least to some extent does what Fourie du Preez used to do for Steyn by taking some of the pressure off.
Outside Steyn, Wynand Olivier had one of his more solid test matches, made all the more noteworthy by the fact that so much was going wrong inside him, with Hougaard in particular not inspiring any fluency in the Bok game. However, the presence of Frans Steyn will be welcomed back with open arms when the Boks host Argentina at Newlands on 18 August.
So will one of Patrick Lambie or Zane Kirchner at fullback, for Gio Aplon just doesn’t inspire confidence in the last line of defence. As a wing he may have a future, but there is a reason that the Stormers prefer Joe Pietersen in the No 15 jersey.
The wings JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana both had a good series, as did new captain Jean de Villiers at outside centre. But the outside backs aren’t going to feature if the Boks don’t become more consistent in their control of first phase ball, and Andries Bekker’s anticipated return to the field for the Stormers will be watched with interest in the coming weeks.
Bekker wasn’t in great form before he was injured, but the Boks need him to be at his best as at the moment Juandre Kruger looks more of a stop-gap than a long term solution at No 5 lock.
The Boks did win the series so there isn’t any need for Meyer to be too hard on himself or his team, and Saturday’s misfire might have been down to lack of injury due to a ridiculously hard schedule, with Super Rugby and the international window fusing into one. But there is no denying he has much to think about as he looks forward to the much tougher challenge that lies ahead for his team.