Boks’ progress is indisputable
Cape Town - The cruel way to judge Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer
as his second full season nears its end is to argue that his record against the premier All Blacks has stretched to nought from four.
That is a cold, non-erasable fact.
The more forgiving – and perhaps also those with a far greater appreciation of the bigger rugby picture – would counter that New Zealand’s ongoing mastery of the world is simply beyond all doubt, especially after their vintage 38-27 triumph to put the seal on the Rugby Championship at Ellis Park on Saturday.
Widely acknowledged in the aftermath of an epic match, and with top commentator and former England flyhalf Stuart Barnes at the forefront, was that South Africa look likeliest team to do the job if the sizzling All Blacks are to be knocked off their World Cup pedestal in 2015 ... and frankly, that is a tidy status to have.
Indirectly, it was also a statement of the genuine strides being made by the Bok crop of 2013, who stand as pretty clear-cut next best on the planet.
The Championship, given that it includes all three of the most regularly best-ranked IRB teams (even granted that Australia’s halo has slipped a fair bit), remains a strong barometer of power and in this year’s tournament South Africa’s improvement was easily the most marked of the lot.
A disappointing third in 2012 with only two wins from six and 12 log points, a year on the Boks took the event right to the wire – title-snatch dreams actually flickered surprisingly promising when Captain Courageous Jean de Villiers earned their fourth try in the 58th minute on Saturday – and ended with four victories and a runners-up tally of 19 points.
It is confirmation their stocks have risen, and fairly profoundly, even if Meyer will also realise that you never please all of the people all of the time and will no doubt cop occasional dissent when he pops into his local supermarket for coal and chops.
I would argue that there are particularly strong mitigating factors to South Africa’s reverse at Ellis Park, not least because of the gross inconvenience of a red-hot Bryan Habana
pulling an upper-leg muscle at the end of the first quarter, and then formidable ball-carrying weapon Willem Alberts
also exiting before half-time.
Another important one is that the Boks showed such refreshing confidence – a virtuous statement all of its own -- to strike for the difficult Full Monty in this match that they did have to alter their more traditional "suck ‘em dry slowly" game-plan profoundly for the sake of adventure.
It is not out of the question that had they simply been tasked with chiselling out a basic win on the day, they might have done so because they are unlikely to have been nearly so porous defensively against opponents who thrive majestically on such lapses and errors.
Let’s not forget that if they lock horns with New Zealand at a very advanced stage of RWC 2015, it will not be with any bonus-point distraction required: it will be in a much more old-fashioned knockout rugby environment on a heavy British pitch and the Boks are still better equipped for that scenario than being expansive so much of the time.
Besides, if their hull showed some frightening holes at times on Saturday, we at least were served glowing confirmation as well that this year’s Springboks are capable of a more rounded game that was absent rather too much in 2012.
The Boks are a work in progress, and it is a process not half bad to observe.
All that, of course, does not wholly absolve Meyer and his lieutenants from what transpired in their latest outing.
He is traditionally man enough to acknowledge failings and may well be reflecting ruefully on Sunday on his decision to completely re-stock his front row at a time when the game remained enticingly fluid and the Boks were well in the hunt for their fullest objective.
A couple of traditionally outspoken former Bok props, needless to say, took to Twitter to lament, particularly, the subbing of hooker Bismarck du Plessis just as he was a little belatedly warming to the game.
"The Boks lost all confidence when the starting front row left the field and their set-piece went to pieces! They were just getting warmed up!" lamented Cobus Visagie (@Drieman3)
And Ollie le Roux (@OllieLeRoux)
weighed in: "Our downfall came when we subbed our props and took Bismarck off."
Speaking in the SuperSport studio on the rotation policy Meyer typically employs when dealing with his two high-quality hookers, Du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss
, former All Blacks coach John Mitchell
, questioning the exit of the former at the time it occurred, said: "You’ve got to go for the jugular."
Mitchell did, though, comfortingly confirm a fairly widespread theory: "The Boks have more growth in them."
The sun was probably still shining in large parts of South Africa on Sunday morning, despite the debilitating knowledge of the Boks being outfoxed by the All Blacks once again.
For what it’s worth, I am one who believes Heyneke Meyer
’s vision is still very much to be trusted.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing