Have a go in home Tests, Boks!

2012-09-16 12:09
Cape Town - For the increasingly little it matters, the Springboks still have a mathematical chance of winning the inaugural Castle Rugby Championship.

If they thrash Australia (Pretoria, September 29) and New Zealand (Soweto, October 6) in their closing two home Tests, and Argentina somehow knock over the All Blacks convincingly in Rosario, South Africa can snatch it against overwhelming odds.

Now let’s banish that to back of mind, because we know that those scenarios are just not going to pan out in the current climate, are they?

But my Sunday plea to Heyneke Meyer and his embattled troops, heading homeward from a Dunedin match they could have won but instead surrendered by 10 points, is this: with pride still on the line and the opportunity to at least seal the more realistic runner-up slot, why not try to lighten our collective gloom in the remaining fixtures?

Would it be too much to ask that they significantly - not necessarily fully - dismantle their infuriatingly kick-obsessed formula, with the tournament pressure now well nigh off, and trial a greatly more daring, easy-on-the-eye approach over the next three weeks?

After all, there’s a compelling case for saying that even if we “die” once more, it’s far better to do so with a smile on our faces.

It is often said that the best sports coaches, fuelled by unshakable faith in their battle-plans, do not pay too much heed to public sentiment.

That may be so, but at present Meyer will also be aware that his ultra-conservative strategy is looking more and more flawed, more and more dead-end-street, and certainly is turning public faith against him at a forceful rate of knots.

The hitherto reasonably patient media are becoming increasingly strident - “Enough of this Bull!” cried the mass-circulation Sunday Times, with some witty double-meaning and a picture of the unfortunate Morné Steyn on the top fold of the front page - whilst influential Springboks of the past and recent past are militant as well.

I have already made the point, into the bargain, that the Boks owe it to their near-heroic Dunedin forwards (reserve front-ranker liability Dean Greyling exempted) to address the rank flaws in their hand-to-hand backline play, which cost them so dearly in the latest reverse to the old enemy.

It could hardly be more clear that, with such a massive premium on defensive structure and the rigidity of the in-field kicking aspect, skills have been chronically, abjectly neglected in Bok three-quarter play, even if a more pragmatic argument will be that wayward place-kicking went a long way to explaining the defeat as well.

At the end of the day, the off-colour All Blacks benefited as much from criminal wastage by their opponents in the tactical kicking department and comically wonky lack of composure and competence when tries occasionally beckoned the Boks so loudly, as they did from visiting failure off the tee.

You have to throw in the fact that their own superior comfort when “chucking the pill about” - as evidenced in the sparkling Israel Dagg touchdown - only aided what could be considered their minor jailbreak in this particular outing.

Meyer’s formula is the kind that can (and does) serve major teams well when the knockout stages of World Cups beckon every four years, and even the All Blacks tighten up their sexy game quite dramatically.

Football World Cups are like that too: the nearer you get to the final, the more you see teams - even those with known adventurous philosophies - adopting cagey strategies.

But you also cannot make the mistake of devaluing the years in between, and in the post-isolation years the Boks have often come up short against their fiercest rivals (victories, sadly, in a pitiful 14 of 47 meetings now) because they’ve been outwitted and out-skilled and just too easy to interpret tactically.

It is difficult, frankly, not to concur with the burgeoning school of rugby-lovers who feel that South Africa’s selection of a dour, formulaic flyhalf (ditto the fullback, Zane Kirchner?) and lopsided penchant for the hoist-and-hope principle, is somehow a copout, an act of virtual cowardice and a signal only of almost willing bankruptcy.

It is certainly not a way of guaranteeing satisfied bums on seats in challenging financial times, is it?

One thing Meyer has got right, and do give him some credit for it, is in assembling, generally speaking, a freshly competitive, uncompromising pack, comprising a nice balance of youth and experience.

It is a unit mostly thriving even without the key presences through injury of such natural born gladiators as Bismarck du Plessis and Schalk Burger.

The funny thing is that, even in this period of quite obvious rebuild, the Boks have still not nearly plumbed the kind of depths they did under Rudolf Straeuli or, for a while, in the Jake White tenure ... this latest loss, for instance, was nothing near as
disastrous as Australia 49 South Africa 0 in Brisbane, only a year before the Boks went on to lift the World Cup again.

The Springboks have lost in both Perth and Dunedin on this particular mini-tour, yet might well have snatched both encounters given sharper, more assertive attacking strings to their bow.

Perhaps no massive alteration in personnel is required to make the essential difference, although certainly Nos 10 and 15 shape as red-letter areas for particularly urgent improvement.

But that is also not to suggest that there is no further cause for some head-scratching by Meyer and his lieutenants: the sharp loss of form in midield by captain Jean de Villiers, who is showing signs of both mental and perhaps physical fatigue, has to be a worry, and a feeling persists in some circles that the centre combo is impeded by really being made up of two No 12s.

Can Frans Steyn’s versatile attributes be used elsewhere? A return to fullback, where he has served successfully before, would hardly be the most crackpot thought in the world.

Without the benefit yet of injury statuses both in and outside the present camp, a Springbok side looking a little like this for the Highveld Tests could just be the catalyst for a brave new dawn:

15 Frans Steyn/Pat Lambie 14 Bryan Habana 13 Juan de Jongh 12 Jean de Villiers (captain), 11 Francois Hougaard 10 Johan Goosen 9 Ruan Pienaar 8 Duane Vermeulen/Marcell Coetzee 7 Willem Alberts 6 Francois Louw 5 Juandré Kruger/Andries Bekker 4 Eben Etzebeth 3 Jannie du Plessis 2 Adriaan Strauss 1 Tendai Mtawarira.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
 

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