Johannesburg - There is a caveat, and given Heyneke Meyer’s insistence that his team employed the right game-plan in Dunedin it is a significant one, but the Springboks have ended the away leg of their Castle Rugby Championship campaign with reason to be encouraged.
According to the supersport.com website, there was already a glimmer of hope last week when the All Blacks looked less than unbeatable against the Pumas, who have now gone on to further underline Meyer’s point that people are underestimating their ability by coming close to upsetting Australia on their home soil.
If there are things wrong with the Bok game at the moment they are not alone – Australia are ahead of South Africa on the log but are struggling, while John Mitchell is right when he says the Kiwis are going to have to refocus the forward effort and become more direct. The former All Black coach alluded on Supersport to the New Zealand management being too weighted towards personnel who played the game among the backs, and Saturday did appear to back up his interesting view.
The All Blacks won despite their pack being shaded in the physical confrontation, with the win coming courtesy of a first half try built around one of the things that Meyer’s restrictive game-plan seems to eschew, namely the off-load, and the Boks gifting them way too much possession through poor field kicking.
And then of course there were the missed South African place-kicks, which for the sake of fairness it needs to be pointed out were not just the work of Morne Steyn. There were three other misses, though it also needs to be noted that of the other three missed kicks, one of the two where Frans Steyn was short was lined up from 58 metres, and Johan Goosen’s first shot at goal in an international jersey was from 55 metres.
The lesson that the Boks need to internalize though, and here is that caveat, is not so much that you need to slot your kicks if you want to win close games, for they will know that already, and the goalkicking can easily be sorted out through changing the selection. Rather there needs to be an acknowledgement from Meyer that the try that Israel Dagg rounded off after starting it deep in his own half did not happen in a movie, but in a real game.
For in one important respect the Dunedin result should have been even more disappointing and alarming to the Boks than some of the other misfires – this was not a time when Meyer’s supporters could say, as they did after Mendoza, that it was the pack that let him down.
The Boks had more than enough ball to play with, certainly enough to attain the ball in hand momentum that made the Sharks so impressive and so dangerous towards the end of the Super Rugby season. Until jetlag finally caught up with them, the Sharks were the most outstanding team in the competition in the last two months, and while it is true Super Rugby is not the same level as test rugby, not enough note was taken of the messages the Durbanites drummed out in their late season flourish.
Among those messages was that yes, South African players can play a more attacking game, and yes, they can also actually off-load the ball in the tackle like the New Zealanders can. What the Sharks had though was a flyhalf (Frederic Michalak) who made intelligent decisions and varied play, a player who was not just selected for his goalkicking, but for his ability to bring the players around him into the game.
It is one of the great ironies of sport that in 2007 those who wanted the Bulls to play a more attacking game were championing the cause of the more direct Morne Steyn ahead of Meyer’s preferred choice, the perennially play from the pocket Derrick Hougaard. It’s an irony because apart from stages of last year’s World Cup, when Steyn was undeniably taking the ball a lot flatter, he has become Hougaard when he has worn the Bok No10.
So the call shouldn’t just be for Meyer to select Johan Goosen, it should also be on Meyer to select Goosen while resisting any temptation to coach what makes him good out of him for the sake of his game-plan.
When he was kicking his goals and the Boks were strangling their opponents in 2009, the Steyn weaknesses didn’t matter. Now that he isn’t kicking his goals and the strangulation is not a weekly occurrence, they do matter.
And on Saturday they mattered a lot.
There should be some sympathy for Meyer’s decision to start with Steyn against the All Blacks. Dunedin is one heck of a place to make a first start for the Springboks. But at halftime it was clear that it just wasn’t going to be Steyn’s day, either with his place-kicking or in general play, and a change was necessary. That it wasn’t made introduced question marks over Meyer’s ability to think on his feet.
Had the change been made then it might just have won the Boks the game, and Dunedin may have been a lost opportunity that won’t come for Meyer again in a hurry. The All Black pack was poor on Saturday and they may not be as poor again, in the same way that the Bok forward effort, which was way better than it has been for most of the season, may not be as good again.
Those last points embrace the sharp end of the post-match negativity following a game that the South Africans should have won – all the elements of the Meyer game-plan were in place, namely forward and physical dominance, so what is going to become of the Boks when they play New Zealand and the platform isn’t laid so substantially?
The All Blacks showed in Dunedin that it is indeed possible to find other ways to win when the physical dominance isn’t there, and in modern international rugby no team can anticipate it being there consistently.
What the Boks need is players who can bring that little bit of X-factor that will make their game less predictable and thus place more pressure on opposing defensive systems, and that means not just Goosen being selected to play No10, but Pat Lambie to make a long overdue re-acquaintance with the No15.
That may seem unfair on Zane Kirchner, who has probably played his best two games in a Bok jersey these past two weeks, but the things he does well, like catch and kick, Lambie can also do. What Lambie does is offer an attacking dimension the incumbent lacks.