Heyneke Meyer has walked a hard road in his first season as Springbok coach. Criticised initially for the substance of his squad (there were too many Bulls in it), by the season's end it was style, or rather the lack of it, for which he was vilified. Played 12, won seven, lost three, drew two hardly does justice to it at all.
Along the way, Meyer has been introduced to some of the hard realities of international rugby, principal among them being the fact that the coach hardly ever gets to select the side he considers his best. Initially, he could not even name a captain, because Victor Matfield declined to come out of retirement, Fourie du Preez was busy in Japan and Schalk Burger had a long-term injury.
When the loyal Jean de Villiers accepted the challenge of leading the Boks, his reward from the coach was to get picked out of position. He never complained and his stature as a man grew in direct contrast to his stature as a player. Moreover, as one whose career has been blighted by ill-timed injury, De Villiers was in the perfect position to see how circumstances altered Meyer's ideas.
The coach may have begun his tenure wearing blue-tinted glasses, but injuries, form and crass ineptitude on the field forced him to change his ways. It is startling to realise that the team that began Meyer's first test in charge – against England in June – was scarcely on nodding terms with the one that ran out against the same opponents at Twickenham last week. Only six players began both tests in the same positions and, of those six, only Zane Kirchner and Jannie du Plessis played the same position in every intervening match.
Meyer lost key players to injury, principal among them Bismarck du Plessis, Andries Bekker, Pierre Spies, Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn. The coach marked his early weeks in charge by casting his net extremely wide. It is entirely possible that early squad members such as JJ Engelbrecht, Jano Vermaak, Jacques Potgieter and Wynand Olivier – every one of them a Bull – will never train in such exalted company again.
One name that has almost certainly been erased from future consideration is that of Bulls loose-head prop Dean Greyling. Coming on as a last-quarter replacement against New Zealand in Dunedin, Greyling managed to give away three penalties, dropped the ball at a line-out with no one between him and the opposition try line and get yellow-carded for a cynical attack on Richie McCaw.
All of which might have been forgiven if the Boks had been on the wrong end of a hiding, but this was a match they would probably have won had it not been for Greyling. He was not the only person to underperform on the day, however, and when Morné Steyn made way for Johan Goosen on the hour mark, there was a sense of the baton being passed.
If there is one aspect that Meyer's first season in charge will be remembered for, it is the dog's breakfast he made of the flyhalf position. He simply could not bring himself to drop Steyn. The statisticians pointed out the alarming decline in Steyn's goal- kicking ability, but in truth it was merely the most obvious manifestation of the Bulls pivot's loss of form.
The nadir came in Port Elizabeth during the drawn third Test against England. With Steyn misfiring and the gifted Elton Jantjies itching to get off the bench, Meyer kept his blinkers – and Steyn – on. Ironically, he did the same again last week, this time leaving Pat Lambie to close the game, while Jantjies, who was promised 40 minutes during the squad announcement, got a tan from standing in the English rain.
The decision to play Lambie at flyhalf for the last three tests of the season proved to be a false dawn. It did not alter the template that Meyer's teams had adopted and 240 minutes of play against mediocre British opposition produced not one moment to store in the memory banks. The last two games, against Scotland and England, were among the least edifying Springbok displays this millennium.
The same Scottish side the Boks had struggled to impose their will upon fell to lowly Tonga a week later, a 10th successive defeat that caused coach Andy Robinson to fall on his sword. And in all likelihood the one-point win by the Boks against England will be put into perspective when the All Blacks run out against the same opponents this week.
Not everything Meyer touched turned to ashes. Goosen is obviously a major talent and the coach's bold inclusion of Marcel Coetzee for the first half of the season was a breath of fresh air. Adriaan Strauss grabbed his opportunity with both hands, Eben Etzebeth made us forget about Bakkies Botha and Francois Louw was a revelation on the soft northern fields. When fit, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen were in vintage form.
But, ultimately, 12 Tests in six months have left Meyer with more questions than answers and he needs to come up with something radical if 2013 is not to produce more of the same limited fare.