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Where Heyneke’s gone wrong

2015-09-21 14:36
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)

Cape Town – Until the troubled last few weeks, I had steadfastly believed that Heyneke Meyer’s branding as a “conservative” national coach was strongly unwarranted.

Maybe the tag was summarily lumped his way via a preconceived “cultural” stereotyping, if you like: he does look the epitome of clean-cut Afrikaans gentleman, not a hair or bit of collar out of place, polite, modest, in all likelihood deferent to higher authority ...

In short, he’s not your most obvious revolutionary, or trend-setter, by appearance.

But as we also know, looks can be deceptive ... and although this will be unpopular in the current stormy climate I would submit that Meyer has tried to shake things up, to address the needs of rugby evolution, far more than many will give him credit for.

His big failing during the bumpy ride of late – now highlighted in grotesque red ink by that all-time Springbok low against Japan on Saturday – has been the way he has gradually, damagingly binned his once brave (yes, it was that) template for taking his team forward.

Let’s briefly consider things in perspective: for the first three years of his tenure since appointment in 2012, Meyer made a notable effort to combine South Africa’s time-honoured physicality and comfort in a tactical kicking game with an up-tempo style of play that included no shortage at all of champagne, whisk-the-ball-through-the-hands tries.

Just revisit some of the Test matches against many traditionally heavyweight nations other than New Zealand – the lion’s share of them victorious, up to nastily turbulent 2015 – for a reminder of some “wow” factor.

It’s there to see. It is tasty food for the soul. And it can’t be washed, or wished, away.

And for those who charge that he is set in his ways, how do you explain, at varying times, his generous trust in a not-long-out-of-teens flyhalf (Handre Pollard), and a delightfully quirky creator with some flaws in his make-up at fullback (Willie le Roux)?

That’s not to mention a bombshell earlier this year in recalling from the international wilderness diminutive fetcher Heinrich Brussow, a man he was supposedly sharply averse to. (Remember that Meyer supposedly “doesn’t do” diminutive, if you believe the rigid, conventional wisdom around him.)

For large tracts of his first three years at the tiller, the Boks were pretty clearly the next best team on the planet – in minds, even if not unfailingly in the debatably-calculated rankings -- to a New Zealand outfit basking in a golden era of virtual untouchability.

Eight or nine times out of 10 against the “others”, Meyer built a side – and an easy-on-the-eye one, too – impressively capable of seeing them off.

Hell, if you accept that the All Blacks represent the giddy, unprecedented platinum, there’s a case for saying many of Meyer’s teams have well-nigh justified gold status.

He was even responsible for successive, unbeaten end-of-year European tours in 2012 and 2013, at a time of the season where South African players should be at their most vulnerable to low energy levels after many months of virtually non-stop first-class exertions.

That is not the CV of a mug.

Unfortunately, and I suspect this is where the crux of his gradual regression in enterprise and daring lies, he has been heavily (too heavily?) judged on his record against the cut-above-the-rest All Blacks -- one win from seven cracks at them.

Unfairly overlooked is that all comers in the last few years have struggled to down the defending World Cup champions, even in once-off terms.

What’s more, in several of the reverses to the old enemy, Meyer’s Boks went toe-to-toe with them for protracted periods, ultimately succumbing more to their opponents’ superior composure or late-game stamina than any marked inferiority in sparkle or modern-methods nous.

But the critical weight of that public, results-based judgement against the All Blacks has at least partially served as a distractive element to Meyer’s carefully-crafted (he is a workaholic character) vision.

I think it has coaxed him this year, whether consciously or subconsciously, into believing the more earthy, “direct” and cautious way is the one his charges best understand and are ultimately more comfortable with.

Comfort can be a bad device: it impedes adventure, can represent a circling of wagons to prepare grim defences against raiders rather than encourage majestic conquest.

There was a time when Meyer was instead challenging the comfort zones of his personnel ... and the policy was showing fruit. Trouble is, some people demand only bountiful harvests, and they want them now. Immediately. All the time.

And Meyer has developed cold feet: by inching the Bok backwards into more formulaic and predictable ways, through his recent selections, he is really giving them a negligible chance now of advancing to the Webb Ellis Cup.

It was frightening just how slow and ponderous the Boks looked against Japan; even more scary that they could not manufacture a sole try to a backline player.

For pure speed and guile of play, South Africa have been shown up in RWC 2015 first-round play thus far by teams far below them in the pecking order of power, and not just their Japanese opponents on that tumultuous afternoon at Community Stadium.

The situation was certainly attributable in no small measure, I concede, to Meyer’s over-weighted and ultimately ill-fated reliance in Brighton on experienced customers with dangerously little match-practice behind them in the lead-up.

Maybe you can get away with one or two stale troopers clawing their way back toward fullest potential; any more than that and you are playing with fire, installing a too-widespread stagnancy.

But the Boks were also crippled at the weekend by their particularly painful inertia in two influential positions behind the scrum: Nos 9 and 15.

If you draw an analogy with an electricity supplier, scrumhalf and fullback are like power stations providing energy to a wider grid: if they fail, the lights dim everywhere around them.

Ruan Pienaar and Zane Kirchner were no more than merely functional against Japan, providing haplessly little, if anything, in the area of the unexpected, the dynamic.

Somehow they epitomised the fall-back position Meyer seems to be lurching toward. He has stopped building; he is treading water.

Don’t you think there is some significance, also, to the fact that some of those prior, far-sighted selections listed earlier – the likes of Messrs Le Roux, Pollard, Brussow – have largely fallen by the wayside at present?

Of course the open-side whippet Brussow isn’t even at the World Cup, which is a little inconvenient when you reflect on how just chaotic, penalisable and pedestrian the Boks often were at the breakdown against the minnows in Brighton.

But Pollard and Le Roux are among the broader party; giving them fresh calls to arms against Samoa should at least aid the crying need for X-factor to return to the backline.

How deftly and above all creatively Meyer responds to the current crisis through his team make-up on Wednesday could yet come to define his tenure as SA coach.

Even if not all will agree, and they are entitled to that view, Meyer has shown before that he can be a ground-breaker.

Getting back on that path would be a sound start to any Bok resurrection. Playing good rugby again would be one way to begin winning back lost affection at home.

He has shown he can do that, I insist.

 *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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