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The thinking is what must change

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is right when he says he won’t be making wholesale changes in reaction to the disappointing draw with the Pumas in Mendoza at the weekend.

There are a few changes that do need to be made, but an overreaction now won’t be helpful and there is no good historical precedent for making big personnel adjustments. While it is 38 years ago now, the 1974 British Lions tour of South Africa remains an unwanted entry in Bok folklore for all the wrong reasons, and the number of players used in that series is one of the reasons it became so ignominious.

In the interests of fairness, it’s also important to remember at this juncture when everyone is calling for changes to note that some of the players we would want called up, such as Johan Goosen and Pat Lambie, haven’t done a lot lately to justify such confidence. Both have been struggling with injuries, and neither of them were too flush in the last games they played (Goosen in the Currie Cup, Lambie in the Super Rugby final).

Still on the fairness theme, when Meyer points to the loss of experience he is not just making a convenient excuse. During the Peter de Villiers reign as Bok coach, when he relied so heavily on the so-called golden era of players to the extent that some were retained until after their sell-by dates, there weren’t sufficient opportunities offered to the next era of players.

In fact, when talking in his book about the cataclysmic away leg of last year’s Tri-Nations, where a second string Bok side was thrashed, De Villiers even admits to making an error by not bleeding more new players in so that the transition between World Cup cycles could be less problematic.

The point is that the coach to follow De Villiers was always going to face a difficult period of readjustment due to the hole left by the departure of legendary experienced players and team leaders such as Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and John Smit. It wasn’t for nothing that De Villiers’s predecessor, Jake White, used to make such a fuss about the accumulation of test match caps – experience is important at the highest level, and it is one of the reasons we shouldn’t be expecting too much consistency during the initial period of this new era of Boks.

Meyer hasn’t been helped either by the loss through injury of experienced players like Schalk Burger, JP Pietersen and Bismarck du Plessis, and few would have argued after looking at the team sheet for the Mendoza game that this was one of the strongest Bok teams of recent years. It wasn’t, not by a long shot, and neither is Argentina necessarily the easiest place to play a first overseas test.

Where the problem comes in is not so much the talent that is available, but how Meyer uses that talent and fits it into a coherent game-plan that can challenge the other top southern hemisphere nations. I’m sorry, but when he reacts to disappointment by saying the players need to toughen up he loses me. South Africa has the toughest rugby players in the world, and if being tough is all that is needed to be successful in international rugby, then adventurer Mike Horn should be the Springbok coach.

Meyer’s focus on toughness and physicality has always concerned me for it may be an indication that the years spent away from top coaching have induced a bit of a time-warp effect. There was a time when the Bulls players that Meyer had playing for him were in a different league when it came to toughness and physicality, and for both the Bulls and the Boks they intimidated their opponents as much as beat them.

But those days are gone, those players are gone, and the game has changed.

Eben Etzebeth is a magnificent physical specimen, but you don’t get the sense that the Bok pack is going to do to opponents what Meyer’s Bulls used to. All the other nations have toughened up and some, like the All Blacks, have become quite adept at playing away from the perceived South African strength.

What the experience of Mendoza told us was the same as what the Port Elizabeth test against England told us – the Bok pack is not always going to be able to take on the role of bully, they might just end up being the ones that are bullied. What happens in such a situation? What is there to Meyer’s game-plan when there is no physical domination?

We’re focusing this all on Meyer at the moment for he is the incumbent Bok coach, but let’s be honest – those last two questions aren’t new. We were asking them during the 2010 Tri-Nations, when New Zealand and Australia found ways to live with the South African physicality and the Boks ended up looking so bereft of ideas in ending stone last.

Indeed, the questions started being asked even before that, such as in Brisbane 2009, when the Wallabies for once were able to front the dominant Boks of that year and ended up beating them at their own game. And then later that year on the end of year tour, when the Boks, denied forward dominance by Ireland and France, were comprehensively outplayed.

I was the first person to criticise the previous Bok coach when he came in preaching a game that seemed to play away from the so-called traditional South African strengths. But while I still don’t think it is necessary to completely reinvent the wheel, a new way of thinking is needed, and those who think our players are not capable of playing another way only need look at the success the Sharks enjoyed towards the end of the Super Rugby season.

A more attacking game will of necessity demand a change at flyhalf, and Frederic Michalak showed for the Sharks what benefit can be derived from having a decision maker and attacking factor in that position. But for Francois Hougaard it might just need Meyer to tell him to play his natural game and forget about imitating Fourie du Preez.

No, Meyer doesn’t need to make wholesale changes. He just needs to start making changes to his thinking and the thinking of his team.

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