Johannesburg - Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer could not have asked for more than he got out of the Castle Incoming Tours Series which was concluded with an awesome 56-23 win over Samoa at Loftus at the weekend.
According to the supersport.com website, when the matches against second tier opponents were announced while the Boks were on their 2012 end of year tour, the Bok coach wasn’t sure whether he would use them as an opportunity to experiment or a chance to play his combinations together to build experience.
In the end he managed to do both – those who argue that he hasn’t spread his net enough are obviously not taking notice of how many newcomers were blooded in this series, and yet there has also been enough continuity in selection to suggest Meyer has fielded the core of his team that will play in the Castle Rugby Championship that starts in August.
Whether the team that lines up for the first match against Argentina in Bloemfontein will be the same one that played the final Incoming Tour Test against Samoa at the weekend is open for debate, and we will only know the answer to that when the time comes.
Of course the opponents in the Rugby Championship will be significantly stronger than anything the Boks have faced in this series, and some of the small mistakes made in this series can be big mistakes against Australia or New Zealand.
But the Boks have been prepared to be innovative, and the mistakes that have been made are ones that can be learned from. And in many ways the struggle in the middle Test against Scotland was just what was needed.
It was that game that showed the Boks where their vulnerabilities lie and what they need to put into every test match if they want to be consistent. Physical intensity is part of it, the clinical efficiency of an ace ball scavenger like Francois Louw is another, and the presence of a big ball carrying blindside flank (or No 8 as it came to be in the second half) to thrust across the gainline is another.
It may not be a coincidence that when the Boks struggled in Nelspruit Louw as absent, and they also lost Arno Botha to injury early in the game. The latter was selected to do the absent Willem Alberts’ job, as he had so effectively against Italy in Durban.
Siya Kolisi played well as his replacement, but it was not trading like for like as the Stormers player has different strengths to the Bulls’ Botha.
The return of Alberts saw the return of the brute strength that was needed, and then Meyer added some more of that when Flip van der Merwe was selected as the No 5 lock. The Bok coach loves big ball carriers, and against Samoa he had a surfeit of them.
But what to do when they’re not there and when Louw is not there is an issue that needs to be addressed for Nelspruit wasn’t the first time there has been a breakdown blip. The final test against England in Port Elizabeth 12 months ago is a case in point where it all went awry when Alberts was out injured and the tight five never created the platform that was enjoyed in the previous matches.
Meyer said during the series that Heinrich Brussow might well come back into the mix if Marcell Coetzee didn’t come through the Mbombela Stadium game with flying colours with his breakdown play. To my mind Coetzee isn’t that kind of player and shouldn’t be expected to be, so Brussow must surely be looked at as the back-up openside flank.
The Free Stater doesn’t have the allround attributes of a Louw, but he has the one thing someone like Coetzee doesn’t have and which is sorely missed when Louw is not present – that being fine-tuned and well-honed proficiency in slowing down opposition ball or speeding up own ball at the breakdown.
It was interesting to see Meyer switch Alberts to No 8 in the second half. Pierre Spies doesn’t have the same presence as a No 8 as the injured Duane Vermeulen has, and he made mistakes against Samoa before the tight five took control. It is certainly a position that needs to be considered closely over the two months before the Rugby Championship starts, although there is a chance Vermeulen will be back from injury by then, which would make a back row of Louw, Alberts and Vermeulen a no-debate issue.
Behind a dominant pack with so much momentum the attacking skills of the players out wide came to the fore, as they did when the momentum switched later in the game in Nelspruit and when the Boks were on the front foot for most of the way against Italy.
But the first half against Scotland, where those same players looked vulnerable at times when the pressure was applied, was perhaps not long enough a tester and the backline configuration is also something that Meyer is going to have to consider carefully.
Willie le Roux was brilliant on attack against Italy and again in the win over Samoa, but Meyer said after selecting him that he looked at him mainly as an impact sub moving forward. Has he changed his mind since then? Possibly, for he has chosen Le Roux as his last line of defence in every game, and it’s not as if the Boks have a player such as Johan Heunis, who was as infallible in defence as he was strong on attack, available to them.
Given that Le Roux has shown what impact a fullback with attacking flair can have on the strike-rate, Patrick Lambie may well be the better alternative to Zane Kirchner, who wasn’t used in the series because he only recently came back from injury. Although Meyer intended starting Lambie in the Scotland test but changed his mind, Lambie did get game time in each of the three Tests at flyhalf and further built his experience.
It mustn’t be forgotten that Johan Goosen could well be top of the list of pivots by the time the World Cup comes into view in 2015, so Lambie might be better served playing both positions rather than specialising. And there is some truth in the theory that fullback and flyhalf are easily interchangeable – as indeed Le Roux has shown with some of his plays over the past few weeks.
Of course, there will be those who will say that Meyer should be brave enough to back Le Roux as his starting fullback and not just see him as the impact player of the future. His early errors at Loftus notwithstanding, the argument is not without merit, as the three matches have shown what can be achieved when there is pace out wide and inventiveness from the back.