Cape Town – Much maligned though he was, Heyneke Meyer did,
in his four years at the Springbok coaching helm, preside over some
globally-acclaimed humdingers against New Zealand.
Yes, his record against the All Blacks on paper – and it’s
overwhelmingly very healthy against other major nations – stands starkly at
“played eight, lost seven” but that also cruelly masks the fact that his Boks
so often genuinely went toe to toe with the undisputed finest modern rugby side
and consecutive World Cup winners between 2011 and 2015.
It was partly on the grounds of a solid handful of champagne
contests, even if that was not the case every time, that Meyer and All Blacks
counterpart Steve Hansen, who is still in their hot seat, developed a bond of
respect that turned to tangible friendship.
That is why it is also vital for the currently doubt-riddled
new Allister Coetzee regime to at least demonstrate meaningful seeds of
progress – some fear the Boks are only staggering backwards – in their first
exposure to the All Blacks in Christchurch on Saturday (09:35 SA time).
Desperately few South Africans expect a Bok win, of course,
and most domestic talk a little gallingly revolves around whether they are
might take a major, possibly even record, hiding.
But a defiant, competitive showing against the runaway world
No 1 side would keep certain wolves a few metres back from Coetzee’s door and
provide some hope that the Boks might even knock them over in the Durban
follow-up on October 8 – remember that South Africa’s home win percentage in
history against NZ remains 54%, as opposed to an increasingly pitiful 23% away.
The scary thing, and a summary of the current All Blacks’
prowess, is that Argentina gave them a mighty scrap for the first 50 minutes or
thereabouts of last week’s encounter, but then buckled under the sustained,
eternally high-tempo pressure and still ended up ugly 57-22 losers on the
In short, the Boks will need to be gallant, purposeful and
resilient for much nearer the “full 80” at AMI Stadium if they are to ensure a
reasonably nail-biting climax to the clash and even the off-chance of a mighty
If they do end up bludgeoned, it will only deepen the mood
of bleakness around the 2016 Boks, who are yet to produce a performance in six
that remotely suggests “top-two nation” – a status our fans have traditionally
come to expect even if South Africa don’t top the pile.
All of the last four bilateral encounters of the Meyer
tenure were decided by margins within the seven-point mark and usually a lot
closer than that.
Here is a reminder of those results, from most recent: 2015:
NZ 20 SA 18 (RWC semi-final, Twickenham), NZ 27 SA 20 (Rugby Championship,
Johannesburg); 2014: SA 27 NZ 25 (Rugby Championship, Johannesburg), NZ 14 SA
10 (Rugby Championship, Wellington).
Even the fifth-last meeting, when the All Blacks won a
breathless 2013 affair 38-27, again in Johannesburg, the Boks at least had the
satisfaction of registering four tries, the only time in a nearly four-year
period in which that has happened to the New Zealanders.
Especially in the first three years of Meyer’s period in
charge -- before he retreated into fatal, painful caution at key stages of the
2015 World Cup -- there was a sprightliness and vigour to the Bok attack that
has been conveniently overlooked by his detractors, even as he managed to
maintain tried-and-trusted principles of forward sagmaak with some big, brawny packs.
They dotted some tries that would have been worthy of one of
those old “100 best tries in rugby” video or DVD compilations – in his four
years, the Boks scored a total of 143 in 48 Tests which was second only to the
All Blacks (208 in 54) among top-flight countries.
These are mostly statistics, not theories.
It is against that backdrop that we wait to see what a
currently rather featureless Bok side, neither dominating nor outwitting
opponents, offers in the Christchurch crunch …
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