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Learning from your mistakes

There was no doubt about it, it was a poor performance. The team had disappointed and the coach was livid. There was criticism and recriminations and a whole lot of anger.

Ex-Bok coach Nick Mallett got up and blamed the selection policy.

"We went into the game with a side that wasn't selected to compete," he said. "There was no open-side flanker and there have been question marks around the flyhalf in the past.

"I've made the point before that you can't ever count someone out of your plans. With Schalk Burger injured, clearly the best loose forwards should be there.”

Sound familiar? It should and it could easily have been about the Boks game in Mendoza, but it wasn’t.

It dates back to 2006, when the Springboks went down 49-0 in a shell-shocked game against the Wallabies.

Then coach Jake White stepped up afterwards and went on the defensive, asking for more time.

"As a guy who's been watching the Springboks since I was a boy, that's probably the worst I've seen happen," said White. "I take responsibility for that. You take the bad times with the good times. When you get it wrong, you can get it badly wrong."

This of course was a much more experienced side than the Boks put out last weekend. It was a side that just conceded one of the worst defeats ever in Bok history, and White defended himself in the face of the criticism.

The point is, of course, that this is nothing new. A poor Bok performance, as Jean de Villiers pointed out this week, will always be met by criticism.

Before I explain further, I’d like to point out that this isn’t a defence of the Bok performance in Mendoza. The forwards were bullied, and the attack was blunt, and despite Argentina’s heroics – which have been understated since – the Boks should have won the test comfortably given their pedigree.

Coach Heyneke Meyer has labelled it “unacceptable” and he is right. But the Bok mentor has been flooded with abuse and criticism, from the general public to former Bok coaches such as White and Mallett.

We all know what happened when White was given more time. He built a side and won the Rugby World Cup in 2007 because he backed his plan and believed in the players he picked, even though at times the public, Saru and everyone else didn’t.

In a country where we love setting people up to fail, Meyer hasn’t been given the same courtesy. From day one he has been fighting critics, even before his team had played.

There is no doubt the Boks need to rethink their game plan. They need to rethink the attack and the way they put players into space. They need to sort out the breakdown and need to ensure their backline gets quality ball.

A few tweaks in selection will help as well, but nowhere near as harsh as has been suggested in recent days.

Meyer’s test career is just five tests old. While he hasn’t lost a game yet, the performances haven’t inspired either – bar the first half of the second test against England.

The one thing the coach is learning fast is the small margins there are in test rugby. While Super Rugby offers you way more scope and leeway, Meyer has hardly been given that since he has taken the reigns of the Bok coaching position.

That is, unfortunately, part and parcel of the position, but you can feel for Meyer’s frustration at the outbursts of White and Mallett on his team’s performance.

While both made valid points about the failure of the Boks to impose themselves, it is just a tad ironic that both were known to blow a gasket whenever a former player or coach happened to criticise their style of coaching.

White, of course, has a history of jumping on the bandwagon, and even offered himself to coach the Boks when Peter de Villiers lost a test or two.

Even more ironic is White’s criticism of the kicking game, when his same Brumbies hold the stat – after the Stormers – of being second on the list of the side that kicked the most during this year’s Super Rugby competition.

White made mistakes along the way, especially in his first year – remember the “I’d only pick two Irish players in the Bok team” in 2004, or his blanket refusal to pick an openside player?

Mallett as well made his mistakes as coach – including the “monumental stuff up” (his words) in dropping Gary Teichmann as captain before the 1999 World Cup. Who could also forget his handling of Gaffie du Toit in the 28-0 defeat at the hands of the All Blacks in 1999, or his continued gaffes by referring to Breyton Paulse as a “quota player” and saying Deon Kayser would not have been a Bok “if he wasn’t black”?

The point is once again that both Mallett and White made mistakes. But they learnt from those mistakes and transformed themselves into better coaches.

Meyer didn’t build his Super Rugby success and the dynasty at the Bulls during his formative years by not backing a side he believed in. He adapted and changed, learnt from his mistakes, while still backing the core of the team from the start.

Perhaps the other irony is that White was so successful thanks to a bunch of players that formed the core of his team – the same players handpicked by Meyer and developed by him.

There is no doubt the Bok coach is under pressure. He knows this. There is no doubt the Boks have been disappointing in their last few outings and need to improve.

Meyer has been in these situations before and picked himself up and came out on top.

As a firm believer in success, the Bok coach likes to quote Vince Lombardi in conversations, and knows all too well the truth in the statements.

“The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That's real glory. That's the essence of it” – Lombardi wrote.

Meyer also knows the easiest way to shut critics up is on the field. Up to now the Boks have been conservative and need to make a mind shift in the right direction.

That comes through hard work and focus, not through listening to over-emotional bluster.

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