Boks: Treading water at Twickenham
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is counting on the fact that victory, not conservative rugby, will be remembered, writes Andy Capostagno.
Heyneke Meyer can't win. Lose with the wrong team and he gets criticised. Win ugly with the right team and he still gets criticised. Approaching the final Test of his first season in the hot seat, Meyer now appreciates the relentless pressure that comes with the Springbok coaching job.
In the circumstances, it is just short of astonishing that he has selected an unchanged run-on team for this week's tour denouement against England at Twickenham. Moreover, the two changes he has made on the bench are aimed at opening up the game in the second half. Pat Cilliers has replaced the injured CJ van der Linde and Elton Jantjies is in for Morné Steyn.
Van der Linde is injured, but may well have played his last Test match anyway. His inability to hold up the scrum against Scotland resulted in a slew of penalties and contributed directly to South Africa's dismal showing in the last half-hour at Murrayfield. As for Steyn, the coach must once again look within himself and ask the question whether playing the Bulls pivot for the last 10 minutes against Scotland justified taking him on tour in the first place.
According to Meyer, the presence on the bench of Jantjies reflects some long-term speculation. He said: "The plan was always to give Elton a run on the tour. He has shown earlier in the season that he can play Test rugby. It is also good for his development as a player to experience the conditions here and to play in front of a big crowd like Twickenham."
It is a statement calculated to set tongues wagging among the conspiracy theorists. After two largely anonymous games at flyhalf, has Pat Lambie been told he has 40 minutes to prove himself against England? Or is there a chance that the solid but unremarkable Zane Kirchner will make way for Lambie at fullback when Jantjies comes on?
Meyer has said that he thinks Jaco Taute's best position is at fullback and the presence of the Lions man on the bench could allow him to test that theory at the expense of Lambie. Or, and this would mark a huge leap of faith for a conservative coach, might Lambie move out a place to inside centre, a position he played successfully for the Sharks last season?
Lack of impact
Critics have highlighted the relative lack of impact Lambie has made at flyhalf and there is no doubt that Jantjies has more of the sheer "presence" associated with the best players in the position. At this stage, however, it is Lambie who makes the fewer mistakes, hence his elevation to the starting team.
Ultimately, though, all this is mere speculation because this will be the last Test for the Boks until June next year, by which time injuries, form, retirements and a host of other factors will change the face of the side.
It may be that by then anno Domini will have caught up with Jean de Villiers, the captain and stalwart who has started every game this year but is visibly not the player he was two seasons ago. If that is the case, it would make even more sense to pair Lambie and Jantjies for a half against England to see what happens. For it to transpire, though, the Boks need to dictate terms in the first half a good deal better than in the two previous tour matches.
They face an England team equally at odds with their path of future development. Coach Stuart Lancaster must be crestfallen after what happened last week. An Australian side that had been put to the sword by France froze England out in the second half at Twickenham, winning 20-14. All the old familiar problems surfaced: the forwards held their own, but the backs could do nothing with the ball.
It is a malaise afflicting many nations right now. Scotland's forwards had every right to lock the backs out of the dressing room last week, so wilful were they in their efforts to kick away hard-won possession. And if it sounds close to home, then that is the conundrum that will have Meyer hoping for a revelation or two in his Christmas stocking next month.
He has built his method and reputation on a huge pack piloted by a scrumhalf who can land the ball on a five-cent coin off either foot. The penalties accrued from relentless pressure break the spirit of the opposition, who are then easy meat for the express merchants on the wing. He has spent this season learning that caps at national level do not come with a "one-size-fits-all" label.
For the coach, this week's international is about buying time. A win of any kind against England will give him an unbeaten tour record and, in the years to come, few will remember the unremarkable rugby played by his teams. Only the romantics who believe in passing rather than kicking as the best way to win territory will find room to carp. Meyer himself, in a quiet moment over the festive season, may yet discover his own romantic streak.