The Springboks are having a run of bad luck, with rolled ankles, bruised heels and fitness challenges. Coach Heyneke Meyer is forging ahead and says he’s confident in the Boks, but will it be enough? By KEN BORLAND.
Heyneke Meyer is not the sort of coach to make sallies into a brave new world willy nilly, but even if he did want to introduce a new dimension to Springbok flyhalf play this weekend against Australia, the fates seem to be conspiring against him.
With Morne Steyn clearly in desperate need of a break to regain his form and confidence and Johan Goosen having shown he has the stomach for Test rugby even at the tender age of 20, there were high hopes that there might have been a changing of the guard at flyhalf for Saturday’s Rugby Championship Test against the Wallabies.
That was until Francois Steyn rolled his ankle at practice on Monday and Goosen had to train barefoot because of a bruised heel.
Francois Steyn’s absence would rob the team of 53 caps worth of experience at inside centre and Meyer might be loath to introduce a new starting flyhalf because of that. Even moving Jean de Villiers to 12 doesn’t solve the problem, because then either Juan de Jongh, with just 10 caps, or the uncapped Jaco Taute will have to play at outside centre.
While many would like to see Morne Steyn on holiday, lying on the beach with his hands on his tummy, Meyer explained on Monday that not choosing the 28-year-old in the Springbok squad would not have helped because, due to the South African Rugby Union not having full control over their contracted players, he would have just been snapped up the struggling Bulls to play Currie Cup rugby.
“The pressure won't go away for him, the Bulls are also under pressure. It's best to keep him involved with us, he's taken a lot of criticism, but you're still working with a human being and I can see that he is himself again back at home,” Meyer said. “I'm not just going to throw Morne away, he just kicked badly and Johan Goosen is not 100 percent fit and I've been bringing him through slowly. If I bowed to public pressure, then I would change the team every week.”
Lock Flip van der Merwe, who took his chance with both hands when he started against the All Blacks in Dunedin, is troubled by what team doctor Craig Roberts described as “a very mild calf strain,” while prop Coenie Oosthuizen, who played just once in the Green and Gold against England in June before injuring his neck, is suffering from “general stiffness” having returned to action with 35 minutes for the Free State Cheetahs at the weekend.
Wing Lwazi Mvovo (tight hamstring) and flank Jacques Potgieter (groin) are other players who will be managed with a gentle touch this week.
The Springboks were in touching distance of both the Wallabies and All Blacks in their last two matches and Meyer is confident they can restore the public’s faith by winning their last two Rugby Championship games in Pretoria and Soweto.
"It will definitely be different playing here. We should have won overseas and in the past we've done well at home,” Meyer said. “I have a good feeling about this team, it's definitely developing, there's a great vibe.
"We had three tough away games in a row, the only team to have that, so it's great to be back at home and the players are a lot more relaxed. At first with a new, inexperienced team and a new coach, there are going to be doubts and a lack of self-belief. But I could see against Australia and the All Blacks that the players knew that they could win.”
Those hoping for a radical change in how the Springboks approach these next two Tests should not hold their breath, however. Meyer made it clear on Monday that his strategy will still be arm-wrestling the opposition into submission.
“In Test rugby, the teams are so close (in standard) and there’s not as much space, so it’s an arm-wrestle. There’s been a lot of talk about the game plan, but I thought we played them perfectly. We had more chances to win but we didn’t convert that pressure into points,” the Springbok coach said.
So dazzling the opposition is out, but Meyer does recognise the need for better attacking play.
“I was a bit cross today because the players have to get that mindset that if they break the line, then they must finish. They mustn’t look around and stop,” Meyer said.
Despite the injuries, there was a definite sense of the tough last few weeks being eradicated from the memory banks as the Springboks trained energetically and enthusiastically in the stadium where Meyer perfected the blueprint that he will continue to back against the best teams in the world. DM
Photo by Reuters.