Johannesburg - Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is a happy man that the foundation has been laid, but he now wants the younger players in the side to take the step up in this year’s Rugby Championship.
According to the supersport.com website, Meyer has spoken repeatedly about the way he wants the team to play – to be able to do the basics right but also to be able to use their decision-making abilities at the right time to create the opportunities that lead to tries.
In the June tests the Boks looked very good, scoring 16 tries against testing opposition and in patches looking very much like the team that Meyer wants them to be.
But now, against the top sides in the Southern Hemisphere, and by implication the world, the Boks know they need to make a step up to implement the same excitement against tougher defences if they are to take another step to becoming the top side in world rugby.
Meyer is confident that stars such as Willie le Roux, JJ Engelbrecht and Bjorn Basson – to name just three, are good enough to continue in the roles they fulfilled in the June internationals, but has made it clear they need to take another step up now.
The Bok coach is set to keep faith in the trio as he did in June, with the more experienced players such as Juan de Jongh and Zane Kirchner waiting on the sidelines, while JP Pietersen has left for Japan.
In essence, Meyer knows he can fall back on these players if need be, but given the flair that the trio have, would rather go positive and try and create opportunities and strengthen his squad than to use the same players over and over.
All three will be dangerous if they get ball in space, and with the Bok pack settled, they should be supplied with enough quality ball to ensure they make the most of their opportunities.
Meyer says he has spoken to the players, and knows they are keen to face the task, which is daunting, but not insurmountable.
“I’ve spoken to some of the players, and it is obviously a step up that they have to take. It’s a mindset. You also play away from home, but I’ve said to them at the end of the day it is a mindset. If you believe it will be more difficult, and you believe that then often you don’t perform,” Meyer said.
“I want them to make the step up and show they can do it against the best teams in the world. There was certain flair on the incoming tours series – we know defences are better but we still want to go out there and score tries. Guys like Willie, JJ and Bjorn have to show they can make it to the next level and score the same type of tries and create the same type of opportunities.
“You win these competitions with defence, so I want to see how they defend against the best teams in the world, how they adapt and how they handle the pressure. These games are all 50-50 and usually you win those games by adapting to the pressure. That is the next step in their learning curve, but I’m very happy that the youngsters are doing well but they need to take it to the next level.”
Meyer used the example of Eben Etzebeth, who is already settled in the pack and has made his presence felt in world rugby, despite it being only his second year on the international test scene.
“It is only his second year of test rugby and already he looks like a seasoned player. I need improvement from all those players who had a great incoming tour. But they need to prove to themselves they can take it to the next level.
“But saying that, I have a lot of confidence in them and in training they were awesome and I’m excited to see how they go.”
The Bok coach knows the stakes are higher in the Rugby Championship, but has been preaching the mantra of a more settled side all along. With that comes a lot more confidence and momentum, both factors that will be necessary against the Sanzar counterparts.
But like any side improvement is key. The Boks were good against Italy, Samoa and Scotland but definitely need to improve in certain areas of the game.
“The positive for us though is that we know what to expect now. Last year we didn’t really know what to expect in the first game. Although we played well in Cape Town, I felt we could have played better there and overseas. They will definitely be better, but in the same way Australia and New Zealand will also be better. We’re also a much more settled side, and a much better side this year.
“The one thing – we’ve always prided ourselves on our set phases. Our lineouts were good and we scrummed well in the June tests. This is a total new ball game.
“I wasn’t happy with our kick-offs, and we have really worked hard on that. The one thing I was happy with was – that last year we created a lot of try-scoring opportunities and in June we did well. I really believe, contrary to what some people may say, we did very well.”
One key factor that was positive from the June victories was the 16 tries the Boks scored – compared to seven by the All Blacks against France, who many people forget were beaten by both Italy and Scotland in the Six Nations.
“The main difference in the Rugby Championship is that teams are better, defences are better organised and you don’t get as many chances. You can sometimes play better rugby but lose the game because the other team gets one opportunity and they take their chances.
“The one thing that made me happy is we created scoring opportunities and we finished them. We have very exciting backs at the moment. The one thing I want to see now that wasn’t there last year is – no soft moments! We need to convert pressure into points.
“Our goal kickers struggled last year but this year they have been on song, and that makes a difference. We need to execute better but I also believe that we have made huge strides at the breakdown. Argentina are very effective at stopping your ball at the breakdown and we have to look at that. We basically want small improvements in every single area, but I really believe we are a much better side than we have been but the proof is to and go do it on the field.”
And that is precisely where the answers will come. The Boks know that, and are keen to take that next step forward.