Flyhalf Morne Steyn was booed by the home crowd in Port Elizabeth during the final test last week. (Steve Haag/Gallo Images)
The June international window is now closed and the Super Rugby competition enters its final month of log play, which gives Heyneke Meyer ample time to reflect. When you are the Springbok coach, it takes a lot of effort to get the public on your side, but just one bad performance puts you right back to square one.
If Meyer was purring after the first-quarter display against England in Johannesburg, he was tearing his hair out by the end of the drawn final Test in Port Elizabeth.
Towards the end of the game the home crowd began to boo Morné Steyn, which has not happened to a Bulls flyhalf in a Springbok jersey since the prime of one Hendrik Egnatius Botha. Steyn provided a focal point for a damp and fractious audience that wondered aloud whether the emperor had no clothes. Was this, they muttered, the shape of things to come?
Fortunately for Meyer, the national side has disbanded for the next two months. He has time to gather his lieutenants and begin to plot the way forward for the Rugby Championship. It is probably too late in his coaching career to expect a marked change in policy, however.
Indeed, Meyer’s remark straight after Saturday’s test spoke of a man confident of his path: “If we can’t execute a plan A, why go to a plan B?” And there was more. His follow-up remark was: “We will stick to this plan. It’s all about execution before innovation.”
So what is the plan? Well, it is no secret that Meyer’s success in the past has come from a simple base: win the collisions is his philosophy. It is, of course, more complex than that, just as Jake White had more strings to his bow than winning the turnover ball by chasing well-placed kicks. But the core of plan A is to win the collisions.
Nothing to fetch
It is why Meyer prefers size over skill and it is why the Boks lost a lot when Willem Alberts reported unfit for the third test. It is also why Meyer began the series with Alberts in the starting line-up instead of using him as an impact player in the manner of his predecessor, Peter de Villiers. Meyer believes that you do not need a fetcher like Heinrich Brussow for a simple reason: if you win the collisions, the opposition does not have the ball and therefore there is nothing to fetch.
So the question arises: Would the Boks have won the final Test with Alberts in the side? With Frans Steyn attending his nuptials in the Midlands, there were two key ball carriers absent, both of whom win 80% of their collisions. It is too simplistic an argument, one that ignores the opposition. In fact, during the course of the three-Test series, England worked out how to nullify the Bok game plan.
It is not a case of back to the drawing board for the coach, but it is a case of watch Super Rugby closely and select wisely before the Rugby Championship. Specifically, the mid-field axis of 8, 9, 10 and 12, which last week was made up exclusively of Bulls players, needs an overhaul. The Bulls lost their last three matches before the series against England and the lack of confidence bled through to the Tests.
This week the Bulls play the Cheetahs at Loftus and they need to hit the ground running if they are to maintain an interest in the play-offs. Technically, the Cheetahs are still in with a chance of finishing in the top six and many of their players will relish the opportunity of removing the blue-tinged blinkers from the eyes of the national coach.
The Sharks have a bye and the guaranteed four points also keeps them in the hunt, whereas the Stormers host a Lions side missing coach John Mitchell. Player power has ousted the New Zealander for the moment and it may be that the meltdown of the Johannesburg-based franchise has begun in earnest.
A brave stand
Several months ago it seemed that bankruptcy might save the South African Rugby Union the task of relegating the Lions at the end of the season. But businessman Altmann Ehlers came on board to underwrite the Lions’ debt and so matters moved to the playing field.
It seems aeons ago that the Lions won the Currie Cup and the confidence engendered by it is long gone. Mitchell’s attempts to humiliate his troops into playing better failed and a brave stand from captain Josh Strauss has resulted in the coach’s suspension. The psychological state of the players will be an intriguing subtext at Newlands.
Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies will be another player wishing to make his case to the Springbok coach, having been left on the bench for the duration of the Port Elizabeth Test despite Morné Steyn’s woeful display. A pair of Stormers thoroughbreds, Siya Kolisi and Juan de Jongh, will also hope to mobilise the popular vote.
Ultimately, Meyer can count himself fortunate to have had such a taxing series ahead of his first tournament in charge. It should have opened his eyes to the need to look beyond his favourites and cast the selection net wider into the large pool of talent available to him in Super Rugby.