Heyneke Meyer is a coach who firmly believes in the importance of psychology - he studied it at the University of Pretoria, after all - and he has been playing mind games all week when it comes to whether or not the Springboks will chase four tries in order to try and win the Rugby Championship against the All Blacks at Ellis Park on Saturday. By KEN BORLAND.
It is not the visitors who are the target of these mind games, but rather his own team. Every time a journalist mentioned “going for four tries” this week, Meyer would quickly say, “I just want to clarify that I’ve never said we’re going for four tries”.
The reason is not because the Springboks aren’t going to try to win the Rugby Championship on Saturday but because Meyer is trying to ensure his team are thinking straight in Saturday’s epic encounter.
If the Springboks go into Saturday’s Rugby Championship finale focused on scoring four tries, they could well “forget” to concentrate on the basics, and thereby pass by the rugby equivalent of building an innings – laying a solid platform from which a team can successfully attack.
Meyer wants his side to stick to their strengths, to trust that their game plan, if perfectly executed, can create the pressure that leads to mistakes and opportunities to score. The last thing he wants is for the Springboks to go out and throw the ball around willy-nilly from the start, because this will only play into the hands of the All Blacks, leading to the errors which they are so adept at capitalising on.
“You don’t beat the All Blacks by being over-motivated or too emotional. We have to be clinical, they put pressure on you with their kicking game and they punish every mistake.
“Of course we will go out and play positively because we obviously believe it is possible to score four tries, but it’s going to be very difficult against the All Blacks, who have conceded only seven tries in their last eight games.
“I know we’ve done it before against them, but that was nine years back when defences weren’t so organised. Just to win the game is going to be a massive challenge and we’ll need to stay focused from minute-to-minute,” Meyer said.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is also of the opinion that instead of focusing on four tries, a team in South Africa’s position would be better served concentrating on their own strengths.
“I don’t expect them to take too many shots at goal, I’m sure they’ll kick to the corner and try and drive over from there and they’ll look to use the ball more than they did at Eden Park, like they did against Australia. But if you change the basic way you play because you’re chasing four tries then you’re going to get yourself in trouble and I think they’re too smart to fall into that trap,” Hansen said on Thursday.
Rather than being decided by a flurry of tries, Saturday’s contest is likely to be won by the team that soaks up pressure best and is able to be most ruthless in taking their scoring opportunities.
Or, as Hansen put it, “The team that wins the most moments will win the game.”
What a pity then that Eden Park referee Romain Poite was so inconsiderate to the world of rugby by gifting the All Blacks a bonus point in their previous meeting with the Springboks, thereby loading the odds heavily in their favour on Saturday and detracting from what would have been a phenomenal spectacle.
Whatever sort of game is employed by the Springboks, it is difficult to see New Zealand’s hold on the southern hemisphere title being broken.
The All Blacks need just one log point to win the Rugby Championship and, if the Springboks play dazzling running rugby and score four tries, the game will inevitably be an open one and the visitors will be heavily favoured to also get a four-try bonus point.
If South Africa employ a more tactical, pressure-based game, one would still have to back the All Blacks to finish within seven points of them and still get a bonus point.
Where the Springboks could really land in the poo is if they are unclear about exactly what they are trying to do.
So, all things considered, don’t expect the Springboks to be flinging the ball to Willie le Roux from first phase and expecting him to create something from nothing.
They will get five points from a try from a rolling maul just as they would get five points for running the ball through a dozen phases from the halfway line.
It may well be like trying to get blood from a stone, but their best bet is to try and squeeze half-a-dozen mistakes from the All Blacks in their red zone.
The next issue, of course, is then ensuring that you are actually playing in the New Zealand 22 and Meyer pointed to last year’s 32-16 hammering in Soweto as an example of how difficult that is. The Springboks actually led 16-12 at half-time but were thoroughly outplayed in the final reckoning.
“I know everyone talks about their great running game, but what is so effective for the All Blacks is their kicking game. We couldn’t get out of our own half in Soweto and they kicked 12 times more than we did that day,” Meyer said.
The brilliant Israel Dagg perhaps epitomises this misperception about the All Blacks and the fullback spoke candidly on Thursday about how he focuses on the mundane.
“You need to have a balance between kicking and running and on the Highveld the ball obviously goes further. You need plans to exit your territory and I have to choose the best way possible to get out. I play what I see, but obviously if we’re under pressure at the back then I’m going to send the ball down the other side.
“I just try and nail my core roles. The breaks and tries might come, but I’m focusing on phase play, catching the high balls and getting into the backline,” Dagg said.
The highly-educated boot of Fourie du Preez, one of the two Springboks who played in the 40-26 drubbing of the All Blacks in their last meeting at Ellis Park in 2004, will help the Springboks kick better than they did in Soweto a year ago and the general vision and strategic brilliance of the scrumhalf, along with the experienced Morne Steyn at flyhalf, will have to keep the South Africans focused and sticking to the narrow line they need to tread on Saturday.
Captain Jean de Villiers is the other Springbok who played in 2004 and it is he and someone like Bryan Habana who will have to set the right tone on Saturday.
“I’m not sure how attacking the All Blacks are, actually, we’ve scored 19 tries each in the Rugby Championship this year. They have a fantastic suffocation strategy and they’ve only run five times out of their own half in the Rugby Championship this year. But they are a fantastic counter-attacking team when it’s on.
“We’ll have to make sure our defence improves and we need to make sure we’re playing in the right area of the field. Aaron Cruden and Israel Dagg both have fantastic kicking games and it’s going to be about playing tactical and clever rugby, they’re definitely going to move us around.
“The All Blacks are not number one and the world champions because they are palookas, we’re going to have to be at our best. The All Blacks are going to come out wanting to win and it should be the sort of spectacle that rugby is all about,” the record-breaking winger said.
South Africa: 15-Zane Kirchner, 14-Willie le Roux, 13-JJ Engelbrecht/Jan Serfontein, 12-Jean de Villiers, 11-Bryan Habana, 10-Morné Steyn, 9-Fourie du Preez, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Francois Louw, 5-Juandré Kruger, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Substitutes – 16-Adriaan Strauss, 17-Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18-Coenie Oosthuizen, 19-Franco van der Merwe, 20-Siya Kolisi, 21-Ruan Pienaar, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Jan Serfontein/Juan de Jongh.
New Zealand: 15-Israel Dagg, 14-Ben Smith, 13-Conrad Smith, 12-Ma’a Nonu, 11-Julian Savea, 10-Aaron Cruden, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Kieran Read, 7-Richie McCaw, 6-Liam Messam, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Charlie Faumuina, 2-Andrew Hore, 1-Tony Woodcock. Substitutes – 16-Dane Coles, 17-Wyatt Crockett, 18-Ben Franks, 19-Steven Luatua, 20-Sam Cane, 21-Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22-Beauden Barrett, 23-Charles Piutau.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales). DM
Photo: South Africa Springboks’ Bryan Habana scores a try during their Rugby World Cup Pool D match against Namibia at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland September 22, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall