Boks get their pass mark
It wasn’t by much more than their margin of victory over England in the final game, and it wasn’t always much more convincing than their at times dodgy Twickenham performance either, but ultimately the Springboks managed to scrape together a pass mark for Heyneke Meyer’s first year in charge.
Seven wins in 12 starts, back to second place in the world after being fourth at the start of the season, an unbeaten three-match end-of-year tour, and the apparent beginning of making a habit of winning even when the statistics suggest they shouldn’t are all good enough reasons to give Meyer’s team a thumbs up.
Had this been 2008 and Meyer had taken over a champion team, that might not have been the case. But you have to be realistic -- most of the star players of what became an eight year cycle had moved on when Meyer took charge, and Meyer, by his own admission, is one who is methodical about putting systems in place and building confidence rather than being one for quick fixes.
Experienced coaches will tell you that the best way to build is to do it surreptitiously by bringing newcomers in around experienced campaigners so that suddenly they have 20 or more caps and it surprises the media and public that they actually have so many.
Meyer never had such leeway. In addition to the leaders who retired from rugby at the end of last year, others went overseas, and then there were the other would be team leaders who were injured. Meyer was accused of favouring the Bulls players that he trusted, but as he prepared to leave London on Sunday he pointed out that even the Bulls players were new to him when he officially started his tenure with a home series against England in June.
“I would love to have coached the previous team, I really believe if I had a chance to coach the side with the players I had coached before we could have been almost unbeatable,” said Meyer.
“I knew so many of those key players so well, and they knew me. But when I took over even the Bulls players were new to me from a coaching perspective. There weren’t many I had actually coached before. I had only seen the guys play, and I had to go with gut feel in selecting them rather than using judgment based on having worked with them. I am big on mental toughness, and a big part of this first year was about finding out who had it and who didn’t.
“Pat Cilliers was a guy who in the beginning the selectors didn’t really want. And he had problems in the scrum against Australia. But like a lot of players he showed on this tour just how much he has grown. I thought he was superb when he came on in the second half at Twickenham and played a big part in settling the game for us.”
Jannie du Plessis might have been seen as a fall guy after Twickenham had it not been for the recognition that Nigel Owens’s refereeing of the scrums was highly questionable. Even the English media on Sunday agreed that there were times when the England loosehead was scrumming at right angles.
And Du Plessis did of course play 36 matches this season, which is just way too many.
REFUSING TO LOSE
And that is something that people back home who weren’t close to the Boks on this tour need to recognise -- the talk about the impacts of the long season on the Bok bodies was not just talk, it was a reality that Meyer is certainly not the first Bok coach to have had to deal with.
“I have never seen a team look as tired as we were over the past week or so and I really feared that the England game might be a physical bridge too far for us,” admitted Meyer.
The problem was because Meyer had a young squad on tour, he couldn’t get away with giving the players the week off, which is effectively what Peter de Villiers did in the build-up to the record 42-6 win here in 2008. And he also never had enough credit in the bank in terms of wins on his record to risk rotating his players like New Zealand have, plus he is a big believer in the importance of continuity and he wants the combinations to play as much as possible together so that the team can grow.
In the end the team has done that, certainly in terms of playing for one another and simply refusing to lose, something that was as clear as the lights on London Bridge in both Dublin and London. As Jean de Villiers rightly pointed out after Twickenham, much of defence is about attitude, and there have been big strides made in that aspect of the Bok game on this tour.
Whether you judge the Boks by the apparently paltry haul of four tries from three matches on tour, or the fact that they conceded just one try in those matches, depends as Meyer says on whether you are a glass half full or glass half empty kind of person.
It is true that the Bok attacking game needs to be worked on, but Meyer should have allayed the fears of many of his critics when he stuck by Patrick Lambie, and his instruction to Lambie before Twickenham to play his natural game should have scotched any theory that Meyer doesn’t allow players to play out of the box.
Meyer reckons the attacking game will come together in time, and on Sunday he came up with one of his better analogies when explaining what he meant.
“When you are new to driving you tend to sit behind the wheel and think only of what you are doing, you are just too nervous to think of anything else. But when you’ve done it for a while it becomes second nature and you start enjoying the view out the window. With new players and a new team it’s like that sometimes.
“At first a player thinks just about his own position and being safe, then when he becomes more comfortable with the level of the game and the combinations he is part of he starts to see the gaps and to try things.”
Indeed, and after three successive away wins, and three more in the offing when the Boks play the next June international window against weak opposition, the Boks should be pretty accomplished drivers when next year’s Castle Rugby Championship starts.
If England had succeeded with one of their missed kicks we would be seeing it differently, but the winning was what was important on this tour, and now that they have done that, it and the year in general has be given a pass mark.