The people who paid their money to sit in the stands at Kings Park might not agree, but from the point of view of Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer the best thing about his first Test in charge was that it was largely forgettable. Forty minutes of rust-shaking was followed by a much better second half, in which players used from the bench made a discernible difference.
No embarrassing defeat, no calamitous injuries and no moments of thuggery intruded on a somewhat downbeat occasion.
From the point of view of the tourists the match was a bitter disappointment. The underdone Boks were there for the taking, but they never looked remotely like losing. Many England teams through the years have resembled the one that took the field in Durban: fiercely competitive, good in the set pieces, able to set up excellent field positions and completely incapable of finishing.
An All Black team given the amount of ball England had would have asked rather more questions of Meyer’s men. They would have exploited some poor kicking by Francois Hougaard at the base of the scrum and they would probably have won the battle for the ball on the ground. But the fact of the matter is that this was England, not New Zealand, and it is hard to envisage the three-match series still being alive at the end of Saturday’s second Test in Johannesburg.
For one thing the Boks will be significantly stronger this week, with their first Test in eight months behind them and a change at fullback. It is unfortunate for Zane Kirchner that injury has ruled him out of the rest of the series, because he may never return to the last line of defence in the green and gold.
Pat Lambie should have been in the starting 15 last week and galvanised the side when he took to the field in the second half. It was hard to understand Meyer’s reasoning in several of his team selections at the beginning of his tenure, but having had his hand forced it will be easier for him to say goodbye to the willing but mediocre Kirchner.
Furore over referee
Lambie was the starting fullback in Wellington when the Boks were bundled out of the World Cup at the quarterfinal stage in October last year. Time and the furore over referee Bryce Lawrence’s failure to police the breakdowns has obscured a key moment in that game. Jean de Villiers broke the line and spun a pass to Lambie, who cantered in under the posts. Only as the youngster began to celebrate did he discover that Lawrence had called a forward pass.
It seemed a harsh decision at the time, but coming as it did at the end of a period of Springbok dominance and with plenty of time left on the clock, it was quickly forgotten. If Lawrence had allowed the try, the Springboks would in all likelihood have won the game and who knows what they might have achieved from there? The try would have sealed Lambie’s place in the side and there would have been no need for pussyfooting around the selection criteria last week.
If Kirchner’s injury was a blessing in disguise, the same is not true of the more serious one suffered by Coenie Oosthuizen. The Free State giant is out for between two and three months, which is a shame because he made a big impression coming off the bench in his first Test. Oosthuizen’s ability to play on both sides of the front row earned him his selection in the first place and his replacement this week, Werner Kruger of the Bulls, does not pose the same physical threat.
The time is soon coming, however, when the need to have adaptable props will diminish. The International Rugby Board’s Junior World Championships, currently underway in Cape Town, allows teams eight substitutes, including a mandatory entire replacement front row. It is a safety issue, with the laudable secondary aim of obviating the need for uncontested scrums during a match.
Laudable though the idea of safety might be, it is another step away from the need for coaches to juggle their resources. We forget all too quickly that substitutes did not even exist until the late 1960s and that they could only be used if a member of the starting 15 was incapable of continuing. There was no such thing as impact players in those days.
Ironically, Meyer has at his disposal a side filled with versatility at the moment. For instance, the team that takes the field on Saturday will have three players who have Test match caps at flyhalf in Lambie and the two Steyns, Morné and Frans, with a fourth, Ruan Pienaar, on the bench. All four can also play fullback, as can JP Pietersen on the right wing.
Having got through his baptism of fire in Durban, Meyer will relish taking his team back to his favourite Highveld conditions – and there is reason to believe that his adaptable backline is well capable of making England rue the squandering of their opportunity at sea level.