Crucial that Heyneke’s boldness is rewarded
If anyone was wondering whether Heyneke Meyer has grown in his time as Springbok coach, the answer was provided with his team selection for Saturday’s Castle Lager Rugby Championship clash with the All Blacks in Wellington.
Two years ago the country begged Meyer to drop Morne Steyn when the experienced flyhalf was under-performing during the Australasian leg of that year’s Championship. He didn’t do it, and it cost him when Steyn misfired against the All Blacks in a close game in Dunedin.
The reason he wasn’t prepared to take that step was because he lacked boldness. He was too timid to abandon Steyn as he was his safety net, and he felt he had to rely on him ahead of the young and untried Johan Goosen.
Eventually Meyer turned to Goosen when the South Africans got to home soil. Playing the youngster wasn’t such a great risk when the opponents were Australia, those perennial under-achievers on the Highveld, and the venue was Loftus. Goosen did well, but was then injured after the match against the All Blacks at Soccer City the following week, and hasn’t been the first choice since.
But Goosen’s misfortune and subsequent fall from favour, coupled with his decision to play in France, is not the issue under discussion here – rather it is the change in the Meyer of 2014 in comparison to 2012.
It took just one costly mistake from Steyn at the business end of last week’s match in Perth to prompt Meyer to back the gut instinct that you sense he has had for a while, which is that Handre Pollard is the man for the Bok pivot position at next year’s World Cup.
That should be good news to those clamouring for the Boks to play a more inclusive and balanced brand of rugby and move away from the rigid, percentage tactics of last week in Perth. For Meyer’s reasons for backing Pollard will be that he brings strengths that Steyn lacks and is a more complete player.
When Steyn takes the ball at the line it is an event and there are always question marks over his defence. Pollard is raw, as he would be for one so young, but he is not afraid of the physical aspects of the game, can play on the gainline, has wonderful distribution skills, and to top that he has as gifted a boot as we’ve seen from any recent Bok flyhalf.
Perhaps it is a risk to play him against the All Blacks in Wellington, and it is understandable that some have interpreted it as Meyer throwing his young prodigy to the wolves. But at some stage South African rugby has to move to the future, and there is some irony in the probability that among those who slam Meyer for selecting Pollard, are people who did the same when he delayed Goosen’s selection.
If Meyer thinks that Pollard is going to be his starting flyhalf at the World Cup, this is the time to start backing him so that he can pick up the necessary experience. Yes, it is a risk, for there is still a bit of rawness to Pollard’s game that was evident in the matches against Argentina, but Meyer has shown a commitment to development which has been understandably rare in Bok coaches who have tended to be petrified of failure in a country that judges you on the next 80 minutes.
That bravery and forward thinking will count for nothing with the media and supporters if the Boks, and the Meyer selections, come unstuck on Saturday, so this is a crucial juncture in his tenure as coach and in the Bok build-up to RWC 2015.
A strong performance from the Boks in Wellington will give him some breathing space, and both Pollard and him, some confidence going forward, whereas failure will doubtless ignite howls of indignation and intensify the pressure.
Not that the latter reaction would be entirely sensible, for the Boks have rarely triumphed in New Zealand, and if they do get home on Saturday, it will be only their fourth win on Kiwi soil since returning from isolation in the early 1990s.
But the Boks probably have a better chance than many think they have, and possibly even better than they do on their home soil given that they again play the return test at Ellis Park, where the surface is tailored to the quick paced New Zealand game.
It was their comfort in the heavier underfoot conditions they encountered on the last tour to the northern hemisphere that started to prompt speculation that the Boks might be a better bet for the next World Cup, for they do have a superior record to the Kiwis north of the equator since Meyer became coach.
While there have been calls from back home for the Boks to up the tempo, and there is no denying they could have made more of the ball that came their way in Perth rather than kick it away as poorly, South Africa’s best chance of an historic triumph will be to slow the game down. New Zealand want the game to be quick, that is what they thrive on, they are less comfortable when drawn into a protracted physical arm wrestle.
Willie le Roux is a talented player, but whereas he is a breath of fresh air to South Africans, and adds much needed unpredictability to the Bok approach, it should not be forgotten that the All Blacks have several X-factor players.
On balance they are more skilled and, perhaps most importantly, more schooled in the art of moving the ball to the areas of the field where they can find space.
So the best chance of a Bok win will be to win ugly, as they nearly did in Dunedin two years ago. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be prepared to unleash their attack and counter-attack when it is on to do so, and taking their opportunities was an important part of the Sharks’ famous defence dominated win in Christchurch a few months ago.
Although history and form would render it crazy to deny that New Zealand are favourites, they looked a lot more mortal against the Pumas than they did against the Wallabies. The loss to injury of their star lock, Sam Whitelock, could also make a big difference.
The Boks have a definite chance and, particularly if it is wet and the forwards get into the game against opponents who can be duped into a physical arm-wrestle, it should be a close game.
Teams for Wellington
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Steven Luatua, Jeremy Thrush, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Joe Moody, Ben Franks, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Cory Jane.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers (captain), Bryan Habana, Handre Pollard, Ruan Pienaar, Duane Vermeulen, Marcell Coetzee, Francois Louw, Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Beast Mtawarira.
Replacements: Bismarck du Plessis, Trevor Nyakane, Marcel van der Merwe, Lood de Jager, Warren Whiteley, Francois Hougaard, Patrick Lambie, Damian de Allende.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)
Kick-off: 09.35am SA time
Prediction: All Blacks by less than 5.
Teams for the Gold Coast: Australia v Argentina
Australia: Israel Folau, Peter Betham, Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Toomua, Rob Horne, Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Ben McCalman, Michael Hooper (captain), Scott Fardy, Rob Simmons, Sam Carter, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau, James Slipper.
Replacements: James Hanson, Pek Cowan, Ben Alexander, James Horwill, Scott Higginbotham, Matt Hodgson, Nic White, Kurtley Beale.
Argentina: Joaquin Tuculet, Juan Imhoff, Marcelo Bosch, Juan Martin Hernandez, Manuel Montero, Nicolas Sanchez, Marti Landajo, Leonardo Senatore, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Matias Elamanno, Mariano Galarza, Ramiro Herrera, Agustin Creevy (captain), Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: Matias Cortese, Bruno Postiglioni, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Benjamin Macome, Rodrigo Baez, Tomas Cubelli, Jeronimo De la Fuente, Lucas Gonzales Amorosino.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand).
Prediction: Aussies to scrape it again.
by Gavin Rich for SuperSport