England in SA
Heyneke passes first ‘exam’
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - If Saturday’s maiden Test match in charge of the Springboks had been judged in academic terms, I would have scored coach Heyneke Meyer
a promising seven out of 10.
Intense interest and scrutiny inevitably surrounds a new mastermind’s first match, and if his mark might have been hovering worryingly around the 5.5 area at halftime against England at Mr Price Kings Park, he could certainly be said to have finished his “paper” altogether more strongly.
Anything had seemed possible in result terms, after all, as the teams level-pegged 6-6 going into the break, and respectively showed all the good and bad hallmarks of outfits in quite obvious transition for varying reasons.
But the very fact that South Africa so noticeably went up a gear - and then some, at times - in the second period to put the game to bed seems to bode quite well for the early months of his tenure, at least.
No Bok coach in recent memory, let’s face it, has had so obscenely short a time to prepare his charges for a demanding three-Test series, and there will have been plenty of realist-by-nature supporters of the national team content beforehand for Jean de Villiers’s outfit to simply to go 1-0 up in Durban and to hell with the calibre of performance.
Yes, the cherry could arguably have been said to have just slipped down the side of the cake as the tourists finally crossed the whitewash after the siren to bring the deficit to only five points, but there is also a compelling case for saying that the 22-12 scoreboard situation immediately preceding Ben Foden’s late effort would have been a greatly fairer reflection of things.
And as much as some television pundits were suggesting afterwards that England’s moral satisfaction of finishing within one score of the Boks could be a handy mental tool for them to take to Johannesburg for next weekend, maybe it was also a healthy reminder for the home nation that any complacency could yet prove fatal against an English side clearly beginning to inch northwards on the performance graph again after some pretty grim years.
We truly have a series on our hands, and that has got to be good news for rugby’s purists, tired of sometimes soulless, once-off Tests involving teams from across the hemispheres.
Here’s another thought: for all England’s admirable energy at the breakdown and other areas in the first 40 minutes - “we lost some key turnovers in positive positions,” Nick Mallett rightly observed in the SuperSport studio - whether they can repeat the
trick on the lung-busting Highveld and a faster, harder pitch next Saturday remains to be seen.
Meyer has always been big on retaining composure and discipline and, even with some rank rookies in the Bok midst, the manner in which his charges grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck when it mattered most was a feather in his philosophical cap.
If there were fears ahead of this fixture that the former Bulls-based strategist was intent only on the Boks using “boring”, kick-obsessed and essentially formulaic tactics to eke out wins, spells of purposeful ball-carrying by big forward units married to vibrant hand-to-hand play in wider positions in this Test rather muzzled that concern, I thought.
Meyer also seemed to strike the right balance in selection: senior campaigners like De Villiers (ever-energetic, committed and communicative in his capacity as leader), Bryan Habana
and Frans Steyn
were highly influential on the night, whilst all of the trio of debutants in the starting pack came through with aplomb.
The word “physicality” is never too far from his broad insistence for his team, either, and it was beautifully demonstrated on a number of occasions by the fitting player of the match, blindside flank Willem Alberts
The Sharks favourite, who appears to relish playing these particular foes most, was responsible for some terrific stampedes of the type which suck in more than one hard-pressed defender and free up spaces elsewhere as a result, and he also secured the occasion pilfer in seemingly unlikely situations.
Another area where the coach deserved a resounding tick was for his choice, and then second-half deployment of, his bench arsenal.
Several substitutes added the necessary oomph, including Ruan Pienaar
for calm generalship at scrumhalf when he replaced Francois Hougaard
- the Bulls No 9 did some brilliant things but also got a bit too helter-skelter and impulsive on occasion - and Coenie Oosthuizen, who aided a fine scrummaging cause with a telling contribution on both sides of the front row.
Further comfort, maybe, for the Boks looking ahead to a possible series kill next weekend is that Morné Steyn was below his metronomic best off the tee (had he been more productive it would have been “goodnight England” rather earlier) and is only likely, you would suspect, to perk up his percentage at Coca-Cola Park.
A few cynics out there may be inclined to mutter: “Ah, but did you see the All Blacks destroy Ireland earlier in the day?”
Saturday’s first Bok team of 2012 always knew it was playing England, warts and all, before all else.
Getting Job 1 done with a bit to spare was a satisfying outcome ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing