Johannesburg - Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok side are set to embark on their “biggest challenge ever” under the coach as they head to Australia and New Zealand for their next leg of the Castle Rugby Championship.
The Boks will depart on Saturday night for Brisbane to face Australia on September 7 at Suncorp Stadium, a venue where they have never won before and then jet across the Tasman Sea to Auckland to take on World Champions New Zealand on September 14 at Eden Park, the place they last won in 1937.
And knowing the odds are against them and the Bok history away from home in the competition is patchy to say the least, Meyer has challenged his team to prove their doubters wrong and come back with not one but two victories on the tour.
Meyer pointed to victories in Ireland, Scotland and last week in Argentina to show the team was learning fast how to absorb pressure away from home, something that will be critical if they are to try and win in Australia and New Zealand.
“I’m happy with the way we are starting to absorb pressure and I think this tour is the biggest challenge ever because we haven’t won there for some time,” he said.
“It is really a mindset and it is two tough places to play, probably the toughest.
“But I also think it’s a great challenge. If you think we never had won at Soccer City and we have now done that. We had never won in Mendoza and now we have done that. It’s all a mindset.
“I think the team is getting mentally stronger and there is a mental toughness in the team now as well.”
Meyer said while the public expected the Boks to win, it was tough to win away from home and every away win counted as a massive victory and step forward for this team.
For that reason he wasn’t too worried that the Boks squeaked home by five points in Mendoza. While there was much to work on, the Boks were taking steps forward with every victory.
“You are always on a hiding to nothing when you beat a team by 70 points. They get written off by their media and they are over-motivated. The big thing for me – and it is not always the right thing for the public – but every single win away from home is a great win. We have won four on the trot away from home, with this young team. We got a lot of confidence from that win,” Meyer explained.
“We learnt against Ireland last year, we were under huge pressure and we came back to win that. We were under huge pressure in Scotland and we came back to win that and we were under huge pressure in Mendoza and we didn’t give them any points in the second half. We won by five points. Slowly but surely the team is learning and they are starting to adapt to the pressure and what I want.
“These away games, you’re not going to win by playing the best rugby. Away games are always an arm wrestle and you have to get stuck in. You have to have your set phases 100%, you have to have good defence and you have to absorb the pressure. That plus a 90% goalkicker – which cost us last year.”
And that is why the Boks need to be at their best next week. Pressure is one thing, but playing away from home brings its own sort of beast to conquer.
The Boks believe they have done the right thing to try and freshen up their players by giving them a few days at home, rather than fly straight to Australia from Argentina. Still, there is a learning curve with the new travel to Argentina, and the fact that the Boks are the only side that have to play three consecutive games away from home doesn’t help either.
Meyer said the Boks would be “going hard” at training before departure and then cutting back in Brisbane to try and ensure that the side is fresh and composed after a tough season.
“I don’t like to talk about it (fatigue), because you put it into the players’ heads, but travel is tough. You can see with Australia and New Zealand, they’ve only had to travel once, and they’re already spending the time preparing,” Meyer said.
“It doesn’t help to make excuses because they’re also going to have to travel to this side. Up to now, I’ve been very happy with the management of the players. We’ve been lucky with injuries and at this stage guys are settled.
“The planning is that we will train hard this week, and then cut back next week, because it will be two unbelievable tough games. You can see the guys have fatigue from the flights, but saying that, you don’t want to put the excuses in the guys’ minds.
In the past I’ve made the mistake, you go there and suddenly try and do to much. It’s a fine balance to have them 100% well-prepared and focused. This week we decided to give them the two days off to go home and today and tomorrow will be two tough sessions. Next week will be very light sessions.
“I just want to make it clear, I’m not saying the guys are tired. I’m just saying there is a fatigue factor, but most of the guys are experienced. Still, it’s a new thing for us to travel to Argentina and back and then across to Australia as well. If you think you play three of these games away from home on the trot.
“There is always the question of whether you fly straight across to Australia and spend an extra week to prepare. But then you are away from home for a month and Super Rugby has shown that you usually struggle with that last game in the month. The guys get fresh by flying home and I think we have got it right and the guys are mentally refreshed.”
Only time will tell if the Boks have followed the right recipe. They will be putting everything into breaking their Brisbane duck.
And know that only their determination, heart and belief can carry themselves through.