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Boks will flourish in 2013

Heyneke Meyer must have felt at the end of the Twickenham test like Proteas captain Graeme Smith did at the end of the epic drawn test at Adelaide, when he said “We haven’t played well and we’ve had to scrap for five days, but we’re still here.”

We will know within the next week whether the Proteas come back emboldened by their gutsy efforts on day five. But we’ll have to wait until next year before we can assess just how much this unbeaten tour will mean to the Springboks in terms of confidence and growth as a team.

What is certain though is that Meyer is definitely “still here”, and in the end a tough opening year for him ended with a credit balance and some breathing space as he now finally gets a chance to do some proper planning.

Meyer hasn’t always got it right this year, and he has been criticised in this column when he has made mistakes. But he, more than any other Bok coach before him, was chasing his tail from the moment he took up the position.

I am not referring there just to the short five-day window he had to prepare his Bok team for their first match of the year against England in Durban.

As he said to me on Sunday, even at schoolboy level you have longer than that in terms of there being a pre-season. Super Rugby teams have three months and then they get a chance to try things in warm-up fixtures. And often they still don’t get it right.

No, where he was chasing his tail was in the lack of support staff that he had to help him plot the coaching side of his mission before that opening series against England.

Remember how he and the Bulls arm-wrestled each other in those early months, with Meyer determined to enlist former Bulls employees and the Bulls board equally determined to make it difficult for him.

In the end the likes of Johan van Graan, Ricardo Loubscher and John McFarland were kept away from the Boks until the Bulls had played their Super Rugby derby against the Stormers at Loftus a week before the Kings Park test. They were Bulls employees until then, and if they did have any input, it could only be minimal.

Meyer started off the season openly confessing that the Boks would be ultra-conservative initially as his lack of preparation time with them meant the approach would have to be as basic as possible.

On reflection, his team might have better satisfied those who clamour for a more all-encompassing attacking game in the England series than they did subsequently.

Some of the counter-attacking tries in the first test in Durban were the product of outstanding back play and attacking awareness, and then came a first half of what you could refer to as the Boks playing almost perfect rugby as they threatened to lay England to waste at Coca-Cola Park.

It didn’t last, with that game generally being a microcosm of Meyer’s entire first year, but then came a great try from JP Pietersen to make sure of the series win.

Since then Meyer has been pilloried for the failure of the backs and the attacking game generally to put it together, and I’ve been among those who have doubted his intentions.

There have been times when it appears that for Meyer, backline play is an after-thought, a perception fuelled by the fact that his backline coach was recruited from the Bulls age-group ranks.

Considering that Meyer would have played a strong hand in the recruitment of Pieter Rossouw as the Bulls’ senior backline coach, the appointment of Loubscher to the Boks when he was behind Rossouw in the Bulls pecking order did not make a lot of sense.

But those who accuse Meyer of confining his players to boxes and not giving them licence to make their own decisions should be as heartened as I was at the words of Patrick Lambie when interviewed by a colleague for a Sunday newspaper article this past week.

According to Lambie, Meyer wasn’t just saying it when he told the media that he had instructed the flyhalf to play his own game and bring out more of his attacking skills – he had actually done it.

Meyer apparently had a similar conversation with Johan Goosen when he was selected to wear the No 10 in the home leg of the Castle Rugby Championship.

The most unfortunate aspect of this tour was that when the Boks had their foot on the Scotland jugular at Murrayfield when they led 21-3, they were unable to capitalise on it by running them ragged in the last half an hour.

Then, like at Loftus against Australia, Meyer’s critics would have been reminded that Meyer’s game when perfected is not dour and stereotyped.

It was because they didn’t kick on from the platform created by their tactical game of the first half that there was flak – and rightfully so.

There were times in the Castle Rugby Championship season when the Boks appeared to struggle through having the wrong personnel, but Meyer got that right subsequently. He has selected Goosen and told him to play to his attacking strengths, and he has done the same with Lambie.

Those are big positives and work against the popular conception of Meyer as too conservative and set in his ways.

With top players set to return in 2013, my money says next year won’t just be about survival, it will be when the Boks start to flourish.

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