Meyer must heed wake-up call
The All Blacks are only two points ahead of the Springboks on The Castle Rugby Championship log table but in terms of where they are as a team after just two rounds of the new competition, the gap between the leaders and the second placed nation is already a wide one.
And the way it stands, that chasm could become an unbridgeable one as early as 15 September, which is the day the All Blacks and the Boks are due to clash in what many people regard as the World Cup final that wasn’t in Dunedin.
If the Boks don’t beat Australia in Perth the week before, and New Zealand do what they should be expected to do against Argentina in Wellington, the Kiwis will have added The Championship to the Bledisloe Cup they picked up this past weekend and the race for silverware will be done and dusted with almost a month left.
Sound familiar? It’s been the usual order of things down the years in the Sanzar international competition, which was previously known as the Tri-Nations. If the Boks want to change the trend which sees New Zealand knocked off the top table as an extremely rare event, they are going to have to heed the wake-up call of Mendoza.
Up to now the impression has been created that the public and media have been prepared to give new coach Heyneke Meyer a chance. But after yet another performance which he described as unacceptable -- it was also the word he used after his first of two drawn matches against England in Port Elizabeth two months ago -- the time has come for the gloves to come off and for the coach to start facing a few unpalatable truths.
Firstly, the argument that the Boks are struggling not because of the game-plan but just because they are getting technical details wrong is not new. It was the excuse used to justify the last placed finish by Peter de Villiers’s team in the 2010 Tri-Nations. The Boks never had Fourie du Preez for that tournament as he was injured, and some accepted the argument that it was because he was absent that the usual Bok strategy, which relied so heavily around his kicking game, didn’t work.
The Boks haven’t had Du Preez for these first five matches of the new era under Meyer but unless he is going to be called back from Japan, which admittedly is a possibility, the coach is going to have to accept that he is not there and get on with devising a strategy that suits the players he does have there. Francois Hougaard is just not Du Preez, finish and klaar, and should not be expected to become him.
When Du Preez is not there and everything is not happening off No 9 there is also arguably no place for Morne Steyn. Everyone lauded him after the first match against Argentina at Newlands because of his goalkicking, but that was a game where the Bok forwards created such a solid platform for him that the injured Schalk Burger might have been able to fit in at pivot.
What Mendoza should have reminded Meyer, or alerted him to, is that this Bok team does not have the experienced, dominating forward pack that did the business for him when he coached the Bulls, and that means his intention of playing the way his old team did is wishful thinking.
The reason the Sharks did so well towards the end of Super Rugby was because apart from being the offload kings of a nation that generally doesn’t appear to understand the concept, they also had a flyhalf in Frederic Michalak who wasn’t schooled in the game in South Africa. That means he is used to being empowered to make decisions, and the rest of the players can play off him.
Whether it’s Johan Goosen or Patrick Lambie is a debate that should take separately from the one that must surely have been decided in Mendoza -- South Africa simply cannot afford to carry on with a deep lining flyhalf who just because of where he stands takes the other players around him out of the game and whose default mechanism when the momentum isn’t there is just to put boot to ball.
Then there is what is now becoming the vexing problem of the breakdowns.
Meyer blamed slow ball from the breakdowns for his team’s failure to score four tries at Newlands, but in Mendoza that was not the only problem faced by the Boks in this phase.
Heinrich Brussow was injured when the squad for the Argentina leg of the championship was announced, but as soon as he is available Meyer needs to recall him to the squad. And if Meyer wants to argue that he can’t do that because Brussow gives away penalties, maybe he needs to do a study of how the time Flip van der Merwe spends on the field relates to the number of penalties he gives away. It’s doubtful that he will find that Brussow gives away penalties with greater regularity.
Meyer now has a few days to think about it before he names his squad for the Australasian leg, and he needs to think carefully. The All Blacks won 22-0 in Auckland against the Aussies this past weekend but they were dominant enough in that game to win 44-0.
It’s a long time since the Bulls strategy that Meyer is so fond of has worked consistently in New Zealand -- it has also bombed for the Boks there since 2010 -- and if he doesn’t add some innovation fast the long awaited Soweto test in October is going to be a dead rubber game for which the All Black selectors will be excused if they send out a second string team, thus robbing the occasion of meaning.
(home teams first)
New Zealand 22 Australia 0
Argentina 16 South Africa 16