Cape Town - There were some who scoffed when Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer said after the FNB Stadium Test against the All Blacks that his team can close the gap by this time next year, but it was wrong to do so.
According to the supersport.com website, even though the chasm between first and second at the moment looks a yawning one, it is no more so than what separated the Boks from the top teams in 1997, 2003 and 2008. In all three of those years the Boks finished last in what was then the Tri-Nations but then came back to win the competition the following season.
“The All Blacks are a long way ahead of us at the moment, but a year is a long time in rugby and a lot can change in that period,” said Meyer.
“It’s easy to make excuses, and we do want to win every single game, but we also have to be realistic. We have six guys who are still Under-21. But I have a lot of belief in this team, and the players have belief in me.
Some guys have just had their first taste of Test rugby. They will grow with experience, and if we can get through the end of year tour this will be a much better team next year.”
The Boks play the first match of the November tour in just under five weeks when they face Ireland in Dublin before proceeding to Edinburgh and London. As Meyer says, it is looming as a crucial tour for the Boks as this is the big opportunity for the team to start developing in preparation for next year’s Rugby Championship.
However, South African rugby has long shown a propensity for shooting itself in the foot, and it appears one of the biggest lessons of the All Black dominance of the southern hemisphere competition has yet to be internalised by the decision makers. While Meyer wants to let the newcomers gain experience and the combinations to grow on the tour, he has no guarantee that those players will be available when the tour departure arrives.
It was understood until last week that the 30 players who served under Meyer during the home leg of the Championship would be ruled out of the remaining phase of the Currie Cup, but there appears to have been an about-turn, with the provinces being allowed to call up their Boks for the domestic competition.
It appears the provinces have enforced their right to field the players that they employ, and it is the fault of the South African system rather than the individual unions that it should be allowed to happen. Unlike New Zealand, the players are not centrally contracted in South Africa, and that means the national body has no hold over them outside of during the international season.
A succession of Springbok coaches have looked enviously at the New Zealand system, a system which All Black coach Steve Hansen last week described as one of the biggest factors in his team getting through the Championship with hardly any injuries. While the Wallabies, Springboks and to a lesser extent Argentina were decimated by injury, the All Blacks were pretty close to full muster for most of the competition.
According to Hansen this was because franchise coaches worked closely with the All Black management during the Super Rugby season in ensuring that the top players were not overplayed. Meyer understandably cannot talk out against his bosses, but you could get a sense of his frustration when he commented on the issue at the post-match press conference in Nasrec.
“You have to admire the way New Zealand manage their players. The All Blacks play the same team in almost every test match. The guys from all over the world put their bodies on the line, but the way they have looked after players like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter is a big part of their success. They manage their players very well.”
Meyer said he had spoken to the New Zealand management and compared notes, and he gave the sense that he envied what the All Black coaches were being allowed to do.
It is understood that fringe players who have not played much will be released to play ITM Cup rugby now that the Rugby Championship is over (the All Blacks do have one remaining Bledisloe Cup Test to look forward to on October 20), but all the top players will be kept away from their provinces.
That is the way it should be in South Africa, with players like Patrick Lambie, Tiaan Liebenberg and the other reserves probably needing some game time to ensure match sharpness after spending so much time on the bench.
But throwing the top players who have played all the Rugby Championship Tests into the Currie Cup makes no sense and is surely counter-productive to the national interest with the end of year tour so near at hand.
It’s perhaps understandable after a sub-standard Currie Cup season that sponsors and administrators want to breathe some life into a flagging competition, but those stake-holders are just going to have to accept that the expanded Super Rugby season has turned what was once a galloping horse into a limping donkey. And injecting a full-strength element into the last week in 10 of a league season that has been played under-strength is not going to change that.
It may be important to the unions but it seems to undermine any drive for national good and if Meyer is forced by injury to leave his preferred players behind when the Boks leave for tour we may have to listen to him next year repeating his lament after Saturday’s game that certain team failings, like the defence, were down to inexperience.
There are some who justifiably think that excuse is disingenuous - a player selected to play international rugby should be good enough and experienced enough to compete - but it is nonetheless a fact that the All Black team that has swept all before it this year out-ranks the others in experience and it does take time for newcomers to settle at a new level.
And it is in games like the Boks will play overseas that new flyhalves Johan Goosen and Elton Jantjies should be growing into their status as international players.