Johannesburg - Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer wasn’t being arrogant when he said at the start of this build-up week that his team has no choice but to win the inaugural Castle Incoming Tours Series, which starts for them with a match against Italy at Kings Park on Saturday evening.
According to the supersport.com website, “This is South Africa, we are playing at home, so we have no choice but to win every game and win the series,” said Meyer.
The Boks are a first tier nation, they’re playing at home against teams that are from the second tier, and the most established of those, Scotland, are under-strength because this series coincides with a British and Irish Lions tour. So that victory on home soil should be an anticipation rather than a hope is a statement of the obvious.
But Meyer would also probably be the first to agree that what his team needs more than just to end on the winning side in the three matches they play – they need to win with some style to set a positive tone to the season and build some much needed confidence, both within the squad and in the minds of the rugby supporting public, ahead of the Castle Rugby Championship that starts in August.
A glance back through the record books of post-isolation Springbok rugby confirms that the good years normally start well. In 1995 the Boks hammered Samoa in their first match of a year that saw them win a World Cup, in 2007 they did the same to England, and there were also strong, positive starts to 1998, 2004 and 2009, the years they won the Tri-Nations.
Considering it was a new team, the Boks did well to win the opening series of Meyer’s tenure against England last year, but they played in fits and starts, and the drawn final test in Port Elizabeth erased the memory of the excellent first half against England at Coca Cola Park. That was the closest the Boks have come in the Meyer era to showing that his game-plan is not as conservative as people think it is – when it is perfected it can place the team on an inexorable path to a feast of try-scoring.
England recovered later in the test and nearly came back for a gutsy victory before JP Pietersen’s late try, and it is interesting to reflect on what it might have done to the Boks’ year had they won with the big score that they threatened in the first half. So much of the carping from the critics and public about Meyer’s game-plan may have been alleviated or completely avoided.
Meyer has done the right things so far in 2013. His selection for the opening game against Italy surprised me as I didn’t think he would go for Willie le Roux as his fullback, and he most emphatically wasn’t going to go for him a few weeks ago. The Cheetahs player wasn’t even in his squad when the first training camp took place in Cape Town.
Le Roux doesn’t owe his place so much to the shortage of fullbacks in this country at the moment as he does to Meyer’s desire to build the impact potential of his bench. If the Boks were playing the All Blacks this week and not Italy, he would have chosen Patrick Lambie in the last line of defence, you can be pretty sure about that.
But this is Le Roux’s opportunity to prove that he can provide the X-factor that would be so valuable in a bench player building towards the World Cup, and it is also a chance for him to start building international experience. It’s also a chance for Meyer to prove to the public that he is not straight-jacketed by his structural expectations and is prepared to think outside the box.
He says he has given Le Roux licence to play his natural game, and if he and the team follow up on the positivity bred by the team announcement by backing up on the field, the Boks could be off to the rousing start their season needs in a second year where injuries and departures for Japan have introduced to the potential for a slight stutter to the anticipated progress of Meyer’s game.
Italy are a good team to be starting against. They’re no push-overs, and Meyer wasn’t being charitable when he said this week that they would be tough opponents. They enjoyed a relatively successful Six Nations campaign this year, and in some areas, such as the scrumming, they pose a significant threat to the Boks.
Under their new coach they are building on the platform provided for them by Nick Mallett when he was coaching, with the Italians having developed an appreciation for structure and strong defence that wasn’t there when they went to the World Cup in 2007. If the Boks start off short of a gallop, the game could be close, and in no sense can this Italy side by compared to the one that was smashed 101-0 here when Mallett was coaching the Boks in 1999.
But the Boks should be expected to win with something to spare so that Meyer can comfortably do what he intends to do by trying out different combinations against Scotland in Nelspruit next week. That is particularly so after the Italy team selection, with Jacques Brunel opting to bench scrumming master Martin Castrogiovanni for this match and talking about playing a running game against the Boks, presumably in order to avoid having to mix it with the physical South African pack.
That could just play into the Bok hands by offering scoring opportunities off mistakes and the Boks, even though some of the players are either completely new or relatively new, should be primed to strike. By all accounts the management have put in a massive amount of planning this year, and now is the time for that planning to come together.
The earlier match between Scotland and Samoa will be interesting in telling us what the Boks face going forward in this competition. Was the Samoa team that was so disappointing against the Golden Lions a true reflection of the standard of the island nation? I think not. And what impact will the non-availability of Lions players have on Scotland?