With the series against England in the bag, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is already turning his attention to the forthcoming Rugby Championship. All four teams involved played Test matches against northern hemisphere opposition at the weekend, and in the circumstances it is Meyer who should look ahead to the expanded competition with most confidence.
The other results were: New Zealand 22, Ireland 19; Australia 25, Wales 23; and Argentina 23, France 20. Both New Zealand and Australia were fortunate to win, but Argentina had more control despite what the narrow margin might suggest.
Ahead of this week’s final Test against England, Meyer has spoken about the need to build momentum for the Rugby Championship. But that is not really possible because his players will all return to their franchises on Sunday for the concluding months of the Super Rugby season.
The other three teams are all in the same boat and it may be that the performances in June will look largely irrelevant with the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, it would be unjust to overlook the play of the Springboks in the first quarter of the second Test against England. This was South African rugby at its most irresistible and was easily the best the national side has shown us since the heady days of 2009.
From the kick-off the ball was in play for two minutes and 15 seconds, and during that time England did not touch it. The precision displayed at the breakdowns allowed a glimpse into the way the game is played in the minds of coaches, a way that is generally only possible in uncontested training field runs.
Passages of play
In the difficult times that will inevitably arise in the future, this group of players should remember those 135 seconds in particular and much of the first quarter in general. Be sure that Steve Hansen and Robbie Deans, the coaches of the All Blacks and the Wallabies, will judge Meyer’s side on those passages of play, rather than on the middle section when the foot came off the gas and England fought their way back into the contest.
It may be that things will never get better than they did in Johannesburg, however long Meyer stays at the helm. But even if that is the case, he has at least earned the right to be trusted by senior management and supporters. He patently knows what he is doing, even if it is hard to believe that Wynand Olivier and Jacques Potgieter appear destined to take to the field in the starting 15 for the final Test in Port Elizabeth this week.
Stormers supporters want to know why Juan de Jongh and Siya Kolisi are not in the mix and many neutral observers will feel the same, particularly those who would like a larger splash of colour in the side. But Meyer is nothing if not loyal and he fought shy of drawing resources from beyond his initial group of 32.
Frans Steyn’s wedding and Pat Lambie’s damaged ankle have persuaded him to add Gio Aplon and Joe Pietersen to the mix. Steyn’s unavailability causes the most fundamental change to the side, because his game is a good deal more multifaceted than Olivier’s. The jury is still out on whether Steyn’s bulk is hampering or helping his play, but his ability to break the opposition defensive line and link with his support runners asks significant questions.
Olivier’s inclusion means that the Bulls form the crucial eight, nine, 10, 12 axis for the Springboks and it may be that the familiarity of the quartet swayed any misgivings that Meyer might have entertained. It is hard to believe that Olivier will be a long-term member of the squad and, indeed, few would be surprised if the game at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium ended up being his final outing in the green and gold.
The last time the Boks were in the happy position of being able to lose and still win the series was against the British and Irish Lions in 2009. Morné Steyn’s long-range penalty settled the series in the second Test and coach Peter de Villiers opted to rest most of his regulars for the final encounter in Johannesburg.
The result, 28-9 to the Lions, came as a severe shock to the system and proved that the Bok reserves were a long way short of their colleagues in the first team. It might be argued that it stood De Villiers in good stead because it confirmed the status of the regulars at the same time as it shone a telling searchlight on the rest. He was not thinking that at the end of the game, though.
Win or lose, at the end of Saturday’s clash Meyer will be able to close the book with his first chapter complete. It will probably show three out of three in the win column and some significant plus marks for the future. His gut feel on the back row has been vindicated and the decision to move Jean de Villiers to 13 has not weakened the side. Chapter two will be much harder, but he has earned the right to rest a while before he takes pen in hand again.