Meyer sees proof of significant growth
Heyneke Meyer likes his players to be tough, both physically and mentally, so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that he believes his Springbok team gained a lot from being forced to beat Ireland the hard way at Aviva Stadium in their opening tour match.
The Boks had to come from a nine-point halftime deficit and recover from a woeful first-half performance against the Irish, who were significantly the better team until the South Africans dug deep to turn the game around in the third quarter before winning 16-12 on a crisp and clear but bitterly cold Dublin autumn evening.
Both Meyer and skipper Jean de Villiers afterwards lauded the team for showing great character and mental toughness, and for once those words weren’t just the usual predictable clichés you would expect after such a performance.
Both of them really meant it, for the Boks were really up against it at the halfway mark and there was no hiding from the fact that defeat in the opening match to an under-strength Ireland team would have been a catastrophe.
“Losing would have been a huge setback for both me and the team. It would have been three steps backwards for us,” Meyer admitted at the post-match press conference.
Meyer said the way the Boks recovered from their first-half walkabout, where the pack was just unable to get a foothold outside of the lineouts and referee Wayne Barnes played his part with interpretations that the South Africans just weren’t quick enough to adjust to, showed there had been progress since he first took over.
GROWTH OF YOUNG PLAYERS
“I don’t think this Bok team would have recovered like they did and won like they did had they fallen behind like this in a match earlier in the year. This result is a tribute to how the young players have grown,” he said.
“We would have lost from this situation earlier in the year. What we did in the second half was special. Our performance in the first half was unacceptable and I really can’t go public with the words that I used on the players at halftime. But they responded, and I am proud of this team.
At nine points down we were in big trouble, there were too many penalties and we just couldn’t get going.
“We showed a lot of character to come back. I am really proud of what we achieved. This win means more to us than the five-try win we scored at Loftus earlier in the year.
"It was a really tough week for us. Gurthro Steenkamp was out, and Beast (Mtawarira) was ruled out on the day of the game. We brought in Heinke van der Merwe who hasn’t trained with us, and in the first three minutes Jannie du Plessis wanted to come off because of injury. There were massive obstacles we had to overcome.”
Of course Ireland were severely depleted too, and Meyer won’t be getting too carried away with his team’s overall performance.
There were too many mistakes for that, there were too many patchy periods, and all the players spoken to afterwards agreed that a massive amount of work still needs to be done before the big game of the tour against England at Twickenham in a fortnight.
However, the composure showed by the team plus the refusal to lose were all huge pluses that the Boks will take with them to their next test against Scotland in Edinburgh on Saturday.
“It’s one thing to be selected into the Springbok team, it is another thing to produce a performance worthy of the jersey. The first half wasn’t, but the response in the second half was fantastic,” said De Villiers.
“In Mendoza against Argentina in the Castle Rugby Championship in August we were in a similar situation and we failed to respond. I said at the beginning of the tour that we needed to take it to the next level and I think we did that tonight.”
TURNING THE TIDE
What should have been particularly pleasing was the way the forwards completely overturned the tide of the first half after halftime, with the beating they took in most aspects of forward play being put behind them and replaced with the sort of power performance that troubled New Zealand and Australia at stages of the Championship.
Once the Boks opted to give more focus to their driving maul, something that was neglected in the first half, it started to come together for them, and the rest of their game came together.
Patrick Lambie, under so much pressure as he tries to make the best of the opportunity to start at flyhalf that Meyer has offered him, was unable to have an influence before the break but after it he played a big role in swinging the game South Africa’s way with his management of both the tempo and where on the field the Boks did their playing.
“I wasn’t that happy with Pat’s game management in the first half, but then it wasn’t really a situation he could be expected to do much more as we were being outplayed at forward. In the second half though he really delivered and showed great composure and I was happy with his performance,” said Meyer.
On the subject of Mtawarira, who had to withdraw from the team after suffering heart palpitations which required him to go to hospital, Meyer said a decision will be made on Sunday once all the information from the relevant specialists had been gathered and assessed.
The Bok prop was discharged from a Dublin hospital in the early afternoon but the decision to withdraw him had already been taken.
The way the replacement front-row knuckled down was one of the most encouraging features of the Bok performance, with Van der Merwe helping force a penalty at a crucial stage even though he had only been with the team for a few days.
With Adriaan Strauss playing out of his skin at hooker in the absence of Bismarck du Plessis, one aspect that is definitely working for the Boks is the growth of depth that is coming about because of the injuries, with in most cases the replacement players stepping up well to the task asked of them.