Meyer must fight his instincts
Cape Town - Five matches into his tenure as Springbok coach, and already Heyneke Meyer
finds himself at something of a crossroads.
The bravery, or otherwise, of his response could go a significant way to defining his era in the hot seat, however indecently early it may seem to be judging him so intensely.
Such is life in his unforgiving position, let’s face it.
South Africa started well under him: there were some very promising elements to the successive, quickly series-sealing victories first up against England in Durban and Johannesburg respectively.
His new-look Boks (and we mustn’t under-estimate, in fairness, the extent to which he has been forced to re-assemble the team) combined crunching forward power and commitment with good hints of ambition out wide and willingness to counter-attack attractively in those matches.
But instead of only cranking things up a notch, the last three Tests - which have yielded only one further win despite an unbeaten record tenuously remaining intact - have seen only regression in many ways.
That, quite obviously, is substantially worrying.
Meyer is a likeable man, of good character and sound first-class coaching track record, if perhaps revealing just an excessive hint of robotic disciplinary habit and a penchant for over-earnestness: just what is it that he barks into that walkie-talkie during games, all the while looking as though he is about to crumple into some degree of nervous breakdown?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and from an era of deep depression in Bulls country he slowly dragged that mighty union out of domestic depths and into a phase where they began to even routinely boss Super Rugby - admittedly aided by the presence of some of the most iconic on-field figures in South African rugby history.
The trouble with being Bok coach is that patience isn’t afforded in doses nearly as generous.
Supporters of our national team want sparkle and conquest today, tomorrow, yesterday, and in the next three and a half minutes too.
It has been forever thus.
Meyer finds himself in the firing line, then, only a few months into his reign... and significantly even before he has locked horns with either of South Africa’s toughest foes, New Zealand and Australia.
The similarly unconvincing latter nation, incidentally, hang onto No 2 slot in the IRB rankings because of the Boks’ failure - er, and then some - to put away Argentina by more than 15 points in Mendoza on Saturday.
Of course you get plenty of absurd, emotional over-reaction at times like this. Quick check: Meyer’s Boks haven’t actually lost yet, for goodness’ sake!
Also to consider is that he has been bedevilled by injuries to the very type of players who should be his core personnel in this post-Smit, post-Matfield, post-Du Preez sort of landscape - his “new old-guard”, if that makes sense.
Men in that category include Schalk Burger
and two who started under his tenure but have since also been cruelly sidelined, Bismarck du Plessis and JP Pietersen.
Both earned good votes for various phantom World XVs penned worldwide after the June Test window period, let’s not forget that, and for the moment are desperately inconvenient absentees, only making a transitional Bok outfit more vulnerable than they would like to be.
There is also a case for saying it is easy to put yourself in, say, Nick Mallett’s (admirably animated, nevertheless) punditry shoes in the relative haven of SuperSport’s studios, having a right old go at the Boks from afar.
But then again, much of what Mallett, who has been there and done that as a title-winning and record-breaking Bok coach, said by way of post mortem after the Mendoza snore-fest from the South Africans just sounded so much more honest, pin-point and pro-active than the verdict from Meyer himself.
The incumbent spoke of such things as “improving our mental toughness” and “training harder” by way of remedy for the all-too-obvious torpor from Saturday’s Boks.
Mallett was far more interested in game-plan considerations which -- dare I say? -- the majority of us also favour placing under the microscope with great, great urgency.
I just fancy that the time has come, quicker than he would have liked it to, for Meyer to wrestle his own philosophy, which is geared around stability in selection, staunch adherence to “structure” and a pretty low-risk mindset by his players.
Those can, of course, be fruitful qualities in sport.
Can be... only there are strong signs at present that such a formula, especially so stringently applied, simply won’t cut it against the planet-leading All Blacks, who are not exactly averse to physicality themselves but combine it, tellingly, with wonderful cut and thrust and amazing skill-sets across the park.
I’ll tell you one thing, for starters, which won’t earn me any admiring cheques in the post for ingenuity: if South Africa were to repeat Mendoza by fielding two such blunt, lopsidedly “direct” instruments as Willem Alberts
and Jacques Potgieter in the same loose trio against the up-tempo New Zealanders, they will get hammered.
Somehow it just seemed like a tactic straight from the Straeuli template of turbulent years gone by.
The Boks tried to take down the rugged, revved-up Argentineans in their own den with heavy emphasis on “stampkar” resources yet (with apologies for borrowing another delightfully expressive Afrikaans-ism), largely only got out-bliksemed anyway.
And where are they when that happens? Rather up the creek without a paddle, it suspiciously seems.
Smart rugby people often insist, too, that the makings of a successful and simultaneously vibrant team come in the form of appropriate selection in the “eight, nine, ten” jerseys, where so much of the play is made or at least heavily influenced.
The Boks are currently beset by a sad absence of nous and X-factor in those departments, to put it bluntly - a situation that is impeding them more collectively.
Meyer has to act decisively: how many more danger signals, ahead of the away-and-home challenges against Australia and New Zealand, does he need?
The last three Tests - Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and now Mendoza - have been cheerless and bankrupt for the majority, I confidently submit, of Bok supporters.
Will the coach have the courage to act decisively?
It may well be in his best interests, although he will be grappling his instincts all the time as he does so.
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