Bok hopes rest on growth spurt
There isn’t much that relates Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer to his predecessor, Peter de Villiers, but if the signs are being read correctly, there is just enough of a similarity between the pair when it comes to the approach to their first match against the All Blacks to offer South Africans a weird sort of hope.
Weird in the sense that the hope doesn’t really come from a logical base, but from the feeling you get when you witness precedent.
As De Villiers related in his book, Politically Incorrect, he took the pressure off the Boks when they played the All Blacks in Dunedin in 2008 by telling them that he didn’t expect them to win the game.
“No team has ever come to Dunedin in all the years of international rugby and beaten the All Blacks, so why should we do it. We must just go out and enjoy ourselves and play as best we can,” was apparently the gist of his message to his men.
De Villiers did think they could win, and as he kept reminding his charges, they had won often enough against junior New Zealand teams at age-group level.
But with all the pressure being heaped on him from back home, he elected, as he often did during his four years, to absorb as much of it as he could by himself rather than let the players feel it.
The rest, as they say, is history, and the Boks ended up scoring a famous victory through an amazing try from, of all people, Ricky Januarie.
Is Meyer up to the same tricks this week? Perhaps not, for if you talk to the new Bok coach, he does have a very healthy respect for New Zealand rugby, and he quite rightly pointed out earlier in the year that there isn’t really any justification for people expecting the Boks to beat New Zealand when the rugby teams from that country are so dominant across all levels.
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Meyer has fielded a lot of flak since taking the job, but if there is an impression that he is busy taking the South African team into the sewer, it is the wrong impression.
Where he is now is just where countless other post-isolation Bok teams have been before him, and unlike De Villiers in 2008, he does not have the benefit of taking over a World Cup winning group.
To get out of the vortex which sees them as mostly also-rans to New Zealand – look at the list of Tri-Nations winners and the results of Bok/All Black tests since 1992 if you disagree – the adjustment some people are calling for may indeed be necessary.
The so-called traditional South African approach does not bring consistent success, and the fact that defenders of the approach can so readily call out the occasions it has worked – “1995, 2007, 2009” – underlines that fact.
MOMENT OF BRILLIANCE
But in Dunedin in 2008, even if it was a moment of sheer X-factor brilliance that won it for them, it was certainly the traditional approach that triumphed for them.
Against this current All Black team with the personnel Meyer has selected and given the game they have been playing up to now, it will have to be so again.
Bok lock Flip van der Merwe summed up the attitude of the team when he was quoted as saying that if the All Blacks wanted to run at them they should try it. “We will see how far they get,” he said.
With perhaps the exception of the 2000 win over the All Blacks at Ellis Park, which will be remembered for Robbie Fleck’s two tries at inside centre, and the big one under Jake White at the same venue four years later (Marius Joubert’s hattrick), it has always been the subdue and penetrate, suffocation approach that Van der Merwe alluded to that has worked for the Boks against the Kiwis.
It worked for the whole of 2009, when De Villiers’ team whitewashed the All Blacks in three matches home and away, but herein lies the rub – the pack that played that Tri-Nations was the undisputed dominant force in the competition.
Quite a growth spurt is going to be needed by the young and less experienced Bok pack on Saturday if they are to put in place the fundamentals that the team will need to draw on in order to strike for victory.
And they are up against a much better pack than what they have faced up to now.
The Bulls, who supply the two locks, never made enough of an impression against the Crusaders, and the Bok-dominated Sharks forward unit was outplayed by the Chiefs in another Super Rugby play-off game in New Zealand, so there isn’t really that much justification for hope.
Since 2009, the Bok traditional game has also come a poor second to New Zealand in New Zealand, with 14 points the smallest defeat in that time.
Most will be betting on a similar margin on Saturday, but that seems to suit Meyer and he is probably right to let it.
This is the first time since he has taken charge that the Boks are actually expected to lose a game, and that often does suit South African rugby, which is probably why he has spent so much time speaking up the All Blacks this week.
Yet the All Blacks on paper are not that formidable that they look unbeatable, and winning in New Zealand is not unfamiliar to most of the players in the Bok side, for they have done it at Super Rugby level.
Dunedin 2008 is also not that long ago that we can completely write off the chances of Saturday being one of those days when heroes are made, and precedent suggests Meyer’s approach this week may just work for him.
I don’t expect it to, but it just might.
NEW ZEALAND: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Piri Weepu, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Victor Vito, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Tamati Ellison.
SOUTH AFRICA: Zane Kirchner, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers (captain), Frans Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Morne Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Juandre Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: Tiaan Liebenberg, Dean Greyling, Andries Bekker, Marcell Coetzee, Johan Goosen, Juan de Jongh, Pat Lambie.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Kick-off: 9.35am CAT (SA, GMT+2).
Prediction: All Blacks to edge a much closer game than people are expecting.