The players who changed Heyneke’s mind
The best Springbok coaches have been those that have been prepared to admit their mistakes and who haven’t been weighed down by blind spots, and in that respect Heyneke Meyer has offered plenty of encouragement to those who want to see South Africa rise back to the top of the rugby pile.
Meyer has been forthright in admitting that he has made many errors, and got a few selections wrong on the way through an often turbulent first year at the helm of the Boks. And on Sunday he admitted before returning home to South Africa that there had been several players he had been wrong about and who had surprised him.
Patrick Lambie, after being backed to start at No 10 in every game of the just completed end of year tour, is of course right at the top of the list of players that Meyer may have a lot more faith in now than he had when he started out back in May.
Without quite saying it in as many words, Meyer made it clear that Lambie would be at the top of the flyhalf queue when the international season starts next year. He said Lambie had done all he had been asked to do when he was selected to wear the Bok No 10 jersey, and his praise for what Lambie did on tour has been a far cry from the message he gave the Sharks player when they first met for a one-on-one interview.
Back then Meyer made it clear that he considered Lambie more of a fullback than a flyhalf, and that Lambie was low down on the list of flyhalves but second on the pecking order when it came to fullbacks.
“I did think Pat was mostly a fullback. I had seen him play as a youngster in that one Currie Cup final (Sharks against Western Province in 2010) when I thought he was very tactically astute, but I thought he had lost a lot of that since then,” said Meyer.
“He hasn’t played much as a flyhalf since then, and I felt that there were big improvements he needed to make in his tactical game. But then I started seeing in training that he could play a good tactical game, and against England at Twickenham he really underlined it. I thought he was brilliant in the wet conditions.
“One of the things I really like about him is that he never panics, and he is so level headed. One of the problems before was that he was never one of those guys who boasted an 85% success rate in kicking for goal. I wasn’t sure he could handle the pressure of being the frontline place-kicker in a test match. Remember that Frederic Michalak appeared to end the last Super Rugby season as the frontline kicker for the Sharks.”
Meyer said that as he still rated Morne Steyn’s ability, the decision to select Lambie as the first choice flyhalf on tour had been a huge call for him to make.
“He is not a natural flyhalf, but he is getting there and the more he plays there the better he will get. He is great at seeing space and playing players into it. And his goalkicking on tour was good. He showed me that he can kick under pressure. One of the reasons we won at Twickenham was because for the first time this year we ended with a 100% goalkicking record.”
While Lambie has earned a thumbs up from the coach, and the Sharks’ decision to play him exclusively as a flyhalf next year will certainly help his cause, the man who really shocked and astounded Meyer this year was actually loose-forward Francois Louw.
After starting the year by invoking the ire of many Bok supporters by ignoring the claims of specialist fetcher Heinrich Brussow, Meyer eventually acknowledged that his loose trio lacked balance and an SOS was sent to the former WP player, who has been playing for Bath for the past 15 months.
“Francois was definitely the player who totally blew me away. I think we saw in these tests over here in the northern hemisphere that it is not so much about the battle on the ground. In Super Rugby there was a lot of blowing of players for going off their feet when cleaning at the ruck, but I haven’t seen it once in the November tests this year.
“So I don’t know if you need a specialist openside, but Francois brings so much to our game and he has really been phenomenal for us this year. The good thing is that Marcell Coetzee also appears to be learning from Flo, so we should next season have two players who can both play to the ball and carry when needed to.
“Francois also plays really well with Duane Vermeulen, and he is another guy I have been surprised about. I normally like my openside flank to play to the ball, and the blindside flank to be a carrier, and then the No 8 to be a really pacy guy like Ryan Kankowski or Pierre Spies who can contribute in broken play.
“But although Duane is certainly not the quickest No 8, he brings so many things. He sets the lineout drive so well, and he is a great stealer, and works well in tandem with Flo in that regard. He is the perfect player to have at No 8 in the northern hemisphere conditions.”