Johannesburg - A Lions backbone, a new defence plan, a world-class coaching team and a deadly impact bench were some of the main ingredients in the Springboks’ recent successes against France, according to Heyneke Meyer.
The former Springbok coach said the value of improved fitness levels and a healthy team culture should also not be underestimated for the role it played in June’s 3-0 series win over France.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that, with the Boks, you begin building from the start every year,” said Meyer.
“You don’t have the luxury of time. That was why it was important to choose the Lions’ decision-makers – their hooker [Malcolm Marx], number five lock [Franco Mostert], eighth man [Warren Whiteley], scrum half [Ross Cronjé], flyhalf [Elton Jantjies] and fullback [Andries Coetzee].
“They form the backbone of the Lions. With them in the Springbok team, you immediately have a game plan. That’s why the team clicked from the first Test. It made things much easier".
Because of the limited preparation time, fitness levels were fundamentally important to the attempt to come back against the French after a disappointing season last year.
“I’ve learnt that, in South African rugby, everyone first has to suffer before they’re prepared to buy in and work. That’s exactly what happened with the players’ conditioning after last years’ indaba. It seems as if there is now better communication between the national team and the franchises when it comes to conditioning.
“Against France, the Boks’ physicality, which has been a problem since my time, was the best that it has been for years. One could see it in their defence and the way they chased down kicks.
“We played at a higher tempo than the French throughout the series. They couldn’t match our physicality or our intensity".
Possession at the breakdown
The former Bok coach highlighted fitness as one of the main reasons the team showed so much improvement last month.
“The Boks gave the French no room on attack. To succeed in doing that, your team has to be fit. The French just couldn’t get over the advantage line.
“Under Brendan Venter as defence coach, the Boks have also decided not to tackle the ball with the player. Instead, we mostly targeted the French’s legs in tackles. That gave the Bok defender’s supporting player the immediate chance to compete for ball possession.
“The tactic of tackling around the legs is similar to that used by Argentina and other northern hemisphere teams.
“This masterful move enabled the Boks to fare much better at the breakdown point than they had last year. Players like Malcolm, Coenie [Oosthuizen], Siya [Kolisi], Jean-Luc [du Preez], Ross [Cronjé], Jan [Serfontein] and Jesse [Kriel] were especially good at competing for possession at the breakdown against the French.”
Oosthuizen also impressed Meyer as an impact player.
“The Boks’ impact bench was simply incredible. Players like Coenie, Steven Kitshoff, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit all made a big difference when they were sent on. The coaching team got it right with the balance of the bench.”
Venter was not the only member of the coaching team that impressed Meyer.
“Every person in the coaching team brought their side. Franco Smith did very well with the Boks’ attacking and backline play. Matt Proudfoot and Johann van Graan also quietly made valuable contributions.
“Something that struck me was how well the Boks mauled in the Test. They also halted nine French rolling mauls close to our own try line. I don’t actually think we realise how good we were at that. If France had scored tries from the rolling mauls, the series could have ended very differently".
According to Meyer, Pieter Kruger is another member of the coaching team who deserves recognition for the hard work he put in at the team camp in Plettenberg Bay.
“It’s good and well that the Lions’ team culture and values spilt over to the Boks. But it’s Pieter, [Springbok coach] Allister [Coetzee], and Warren who drove it so strongly and helped establish it in the Bok camp. When Rudy Paige scored a try at Ellis Park, you could see that the members of the team were playing for each other. It was nice to see that positive team spirit again. Allister definitely also got it right by appointing Warren as captain. He is the right captain".
Whether the Boks’ win over the French will prove to be a turning point in South African rugby remains to be seen.
According to Meyer, Coetzee and his team will still need to do a lot of hard work if they want to be successful in the Rugby Championship.