It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t clinical, but it will do. The Boks battered their way to a 22-17 win over England at a rain-swept Kings Park to get their tenure under Heyneke Meyer off to a winning start. With less than a week’s preparation, any win would suffice, but there are still many facets that need improvement, writes STYLI CHARALAMBOUS.
One thing Heyneke Meyer wouldn’t have missed, in his self-imposed exile from the brutal game, was the intense scrutiny from holier-than-thou scribes of South African rugby. In a week that unveiled the full fury of critics from the Western Cape, any doubt that Meyer occupied the hottest seat in SA rugby was duly expelled. Remaining steadfast in his approach and some questionable selections, Meyer had the solitude to stand firm against the torrent of critique that was directed his way.
But if words were his temporary reprieve, only a win against the old enemy would keep the bloodhounds off his trail, come Sunday. And win he did. The five-point margin rather flattered the tourists, who sucked from the hind teat for much of the game. The first half ended in a 6-6 stalemate, penalties exchanged by each team’s flyhalves, but one sensed the Boks were gaining the confidence and momentum that would ultimately result in a series-opening victory.
If the match could be described as disjointed (and it could), the first half was the tentative platform that laid the uncertain victory. Like a semi-retired boxer making his long-waited comeback to the ring, the Bok team looked rusty and sluggish in the opening exchanges as they sized up their opponents from the north. Wary of repeating the banana peel slip-up of their Australian counterparts against Scotland, the Boks played within their skill set and respected a team who had outperformed – and surprised – in their latest six-nations campaign.
The early breakdown was dominated by England, who showed what six months of playing together could do for a team, while the Boks played out a kick-and-chase gameplan with aplomb. Each Gary Owen was landed within inches of perfection, and Bryan Habana in particular made a nuisance of himself, hounding the English back three like a ravenous terrier.
The visitors would have been motivated going into the break-all square, even though a last-gasp tackle from Francois Hougaard denied the scoring machine Chris Ashton a further five international points, courtesy of Zane Kirchner’s mental walkabout in defence. Bar that opportunity, England had fleeting moments on attack, thanks to several turnovers by their loose trio that had outplayed the Boks for much of the first half.
But once the whistle signalled the restart, it was pretty much one-way traffic for the big, green machine. Body shots were delivered time and time again, and the energy of the England team was being sapped keeping the Boks at bay. Willem Alberts shone in carrying the ball up for the Boks, but the team seriously missed the international pilfering abilities of Heinrich Brüssow. England captain, Chris Robshaw, showed up debutant Marcel Coetzee on several occasions, and besides those bullocking runs from Alberts, the Bok loose trio and locks remained largely anonymous.
The first Bok try came from sustained pressure through several phases, with Morné Steyn managing an unconverted try to lead 11-6. The Boks never really looked in danger of losing this match, but missed penalties and conversion by Steyn kept England in striking distance.
That the second half saw the Boks dominate and score a second try by captain Jean de Villiers to put the game to bed, was no surprise, mostly thanks to the substitutes (bar Wynand Olivier) who made all the difference. Hougaard was under constant pressure clearing out the loose and will struggle to keep his starting berth next week, despite his try-saving heroics. Ruan Pienaar, on the other hand, looked infinitely more comfortable and slick behind the scrum. Coenie Oosthuisen and Keegan Daniel added an injection of pace and vision to a pack that seemed to stumble along against weaker opponents. How Wynand Olivier still keeps earning international caps, ahead of the talented Gio Aplon, is a wonder of modern rugby. Aplon would have revelled in this game.
The debutant lock pairing of Juandré Kruger and Eben Etzebeth looked exactly that, wet behind the ears at the highest level, after they lost two lineouts and failed to impose themselves and clear out at ruck time. The Boks, however, will take heart from the victory to give them momentum into the second test, as will the performances of several players. Bryan Habana was not only a menace chasing the high ball, but created space and opportunities fielding England’s wayward version of the kick and chase game. De Villiers did well in the outside centre roll, despite being shown the full bus sign by Manu Tuilagi on two occasions. Ben Foden scored a late consolation try after the hooter to close the game out at 22-17, but in truth the Boks were at least 15 points better than England, and this would have been reflected in the final score, were it not for a wayward kicking performance by Morné Steyn.
For Meyer, it was important to start with a victory, and he did. He bought himself time and reprieve from critics who questioned his allegiance to the Blue Bulls in tactics and selections. For a team that had less than week to prepare, the Boks did themselves and their coach proud and importantly, extended their winning streak over the English to eight consecutive matches. Meyer laid out a game plan, it wasn’t the stuff of rugby dreams but it was executed well.
There are many rough edges to this team, which will no doubt be refined in due course or when the class act of Schalk Burger returns. Heinrich Brüssow was sorely missed, and a few players would have been introduced to the break-neck speed of international rugby which should hopefully see some changes to the starting line-up next week. One does have the feeling this plan will work against the likes of the raw English team, but would backfire against New Zealand, who have the superior skill to deflect and return the attack with interest. For now, Meyer has his critics on mute, and will look towards building a 2-0, and then series, whitewash. DM
Photo: South Africa’s captain Jean de Villiers breaks past England’s defenders to score a try during their first rugby test match in Durban June 9, 2012.REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
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