Meyer flies straight into storm

2012-06-03 11:47
Heyneke Meyer (File)
Cape Town – At the very least, we have just learnt that Heyneke Meyer will be staunchly his own man, whatever the eventual length of his tenure clutching the Springbok chalice.

His maiden, 32-strong squad selection for the three-Test series against England could certainly be branded as brave in many respects – others are already inclined toward more emotive language -- and of course he has an excellent case for saying “please guys, judge me after my team has played a bit of rugby”.

But I, for one, also get a powerful sense that overly provocative elements, if you like, mark the coach’s choice -- potentially putting him rather too firmly on the back foot straight away with significant sections of the rugby-loving public in this country.

If early sentiment is used as some kind of barometer, Meyer is already under slightly self-imposed pressure for his team to boogie in a big way ... or else.

That is the price he may have to pay, and the demands he will have to try to meet, for a squad that puts him on a well nigh confrontational public footing, arguably in several vexing areas.

The first revolves around his conspicuously strong emphasis on players from the Bulls, the franchise where he has spent the bulk of his time – even granted that he remains a relatively young coach -- developing his reputation as an ace rugby strategist and planner.

Presumably he went a long way to closing his selection book even before kick-off in the Loftus-based team’s derby against the Stormers on Saturday night, an eminently sensible approach in so many ways.

Let’s face it, this date has loomed as “difficult” ever since it became known that it would, far from ideally, immediately precede the first Test in Durban a week later.

The legendarily thorough and industrious Meyer will have ticked or crossed many individual boxes over the course of 15 weeks of Super Rugby activity, far more than he would have been swayed by one particular encounter.

Yet the naked, awkward fact remains that minutes before his squad was revealed, the SA conference-leading team (the Stormers) which features a flimsy three names among the 32, had just beaten the Bulls, in their own backyard, and for the second time in the season.

If Stormers representation, or lack thereof, stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb, then having as many as 13 Bulls players in the mix – including some who have been reasonably peripheral within their own camp – will only have inflamed further the inevitable, emotional carping across the north-south provincial divide in South Africa.

Meyer will probably argue with some justification that he has been given uniquely, absurdly little time to “gel” a team for a strenuous series, straight off many weeks of potentially debilitating Super Rugby and that, under the circumstances, placing a strong emphasis on players who best know his philosophy and systems is the best way of guaranteeing a successful series outcome against the English.

Who knows, maybe there will be sweeping alterations to his broad squad in time for the next challenge, the new-look Rugby Championship southern hemisphere competition, for which there is generally better preparatory time.

Also to be kept in mind is that several potential candidates from the Stormers ranks are currently out of action: these include prime figures like Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen, Andries Bekker and Joe Pietersen, though the latter is thought to only be a short-term casualty and could have cracked the nod on the same basis that someone like Bulls blind-sider Jacques Potgieter did, despite several weeks out of action of late.

Yet the fact remains that certain players now have advantageous feet in the national door, to the detriment of several probably more deserving others.

That brings us to an area where Meyer is also going to raise unavoidable eyebrows: commitment to transformation.

At best, his first statement on this front is an unremarkable one, with eight players of colour getting the nod; exactly a quarter of the squad.

Personally, I am not quite as fussed as others yet by Siya Kolisi only cracking a gig as a non-squad extra to be involved in pre-England training plans.

The impressive Stormers flank played comfortably his best match of the season in the derby “steal” for his side on Saturday, maybe just a tad too late to cause Meyer to make use of an eraser in the loose forward department.

But with time on his side, Kolisi will get there – it may even be as swiftly as the next tasks beginning for the Boks in August.

Much closer to infuriating, I suggest, is how the claims of Gio Aplon, in particular, could be overlooked.

The Stormers’ utility back-three customer has done absolutely nothing to deserve demotion from Bok plans, and has the kind of natural X-factor rather too lacking in several others to have herded through the backline door.

If his only “crime” is not to tip the scales to the level Meyer seeks, Aplon has never lacked heart, commitment or courage and is, after all, part of a Stormers system with extraordinary proficiency in defence. (Are you going to try to tell us that JJ Engelbrecht, for all his superior height and physique, is a more competent tackler?).

Aplon’s cold-shouldering will do nothing to stave off a suspicion that South Africa, once again, plan a largely crude, blunt-instrument approach to winning Test matches.  
Regarding the captaincy, I suppose Meyer can hardly be blamed for veteran scrumhalf Fourie du Preez reportedly having a late rethink and telling him he doesn’t feel quite up to the required demands of Test rugby at present, though all this still smacks of unwelcome lateness in its occurrence.

But naming a first squad still without a dedicated leader is also an unorthodox move: you would have thought that when the players assemble, an immediate plus would be for them to be able to reverently brand someone “skipper”.

Let’s hope Meyer doesn’t delay in doing the right thing: entrusting the task to Jean de Villiers, who produced both a personal performance and leadership of great character at Loftus on Saturday after being on a sick bed for most of the lead-up week.

We ought not to lose sight of a couple of points: there are some thoroughly worthy, future-geared selections, like Marcell Coetzee, Eben Etzebeth and Coenie Oosthuizen -- plus proof in the shape of Keegan Daniel that you don’t automatically have to be a forward behemoth to wiggle into Meyer’s favour.

Oh, and the Boks haven’t lost on his watch just yet.

But I am nevertheless among those left with a lingering thought that he might have done himself a favour by choosing a first-up squad that was a bit more middle-of-the-road and less divisive on regional and other grounds ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    england in sa  |  heyneke meyer  |  rugby


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