Two defeats to the All Blacks and a loss to Australia have shaken South Africans’ confidence in the Springboks, but the truth is coach Heyneke Meyer has presided over one of their better seasons in the Rugby Championship/Tri-Nations tournament.
There have only been six years out of the 17 in the tournament’s history in which South Africa has lost less than three games in a season, and one should not yet condemn Meyer because he has just started on his journey as Springbok coach. Furthermore, he has begun his tenure with the most inexperienced Springbok team since 2004.
That was the year Jake White began his reign in a similar state of rebuilding, and even though he claimed one of South Africa’s three Tri-Nations titles that year, his troubles emerged in 2006, just a year before his World Cup triumph, when public sentiment also turned against him. That was the year the Springboks were humbled 49-0 by Australia in Brisbane, and White only kept his job thanks to a one-point victory over the All Blacks in Rustenburg and a 24-16 triumph over Australia at Ellis Park.
But throughout the turmoil – and as many similar criticisms as Meyer has had to face – White always seemed to have a plan, was steadfast in what he was trying to achieve, and we all know how it all came together in 2007.
So before the mob calls for Meyer to be run out of town, the current coach should be given time to build on the positive signs that have been there this season. He has not faltered in his views, for which he gives reasoned explanations, and has been consistent in selection, so he seems to know what he is doing.
An overseas tour with Tests against Ireland, Scotland and England beckons, and Meyer will have time now whilst the Currie Cup finalists are decided to ponder what changes he needs to make to his squad.
The 30-man squad that was involved in the home Rugby Championship Tests should all be having visas organised for Great Britain and Ireland, save for those that are injured like Johan Goosen, Jacques Potgieter and Frans Steyn, and perhaps CJ van der Linde, who at 32 years old probably isn’t an option for the long-term future.
Whatever other selections he makes, the debate will be all about what Meyer does at flyhalf. With Goosen ruled out for six months after knee ligament surgery, it would be a major surprise if Morne Steyn did not return.
The fact is that he will have had a break; he is the only flyhalf in contention who has experience of British conditions and the fields are likely to be heavy, prompting a kicking game; all these are factors in Steyn’s favour.
Elton Jantjies took the first steps of what should be a long international career at Loftus and Soccer City, but his experience is largely limited to mild winter days on the Highveld or summer in New Zealand, a far cry from the rain and snow that can be expected in Dublin, Edinburgh and London in November.
It is also clear after his man-of-the-match performance for the Sharks against Griquas on Friday night that Pat Lambie has a part to play at flyhalf in the future, and it would be fantastic if Meyer could throw him into the mix in that position at some stage next month.
But what makes building for the future tough for the coach is that winning against the Northern Hemisphere sides is a non-negotiable. Losing to the All Blacks is understandable, defeat by the Wallabies is infuriating, but losing to the likes of Scotland could be career-limiting.
The main area of concern is in the backline with JP Pietersen, in such inspirational form before his unfortunate hand injury, an obvious and vital returnee now that he is back in action.
Impressive Lions centre Lionel Mapoe is in line to travel as a replacement for Frans Steyn, while Bulls flank Arno Botha stepped in for Potgieter when he strained his groin during the week’s training ahead of the All Blacks’ game.
Meyer has already spoken of the faith he has in his current pack, and they can make another big step forward in Britain, where the conditions mean there is huge importance is placed in the set-pieces.
The unit will be kept together to grow as a whole, with hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle probably making a return and abrasive Sharks loose forward Jean Deysel perhaps gaining a recall.
For the Meyer game plan to work, the key factor is forward dominance, and the coach certainly has the makings of a dominant pack in place, judging by the showings up front against the Wallabies and All Blacks.
The potential is there, and hopefully the strategy put in place will be the right one to see off Ireland, Scotland and England. DM