Bok coach Meyer sticks to his kicks
Do not bother defending route two because we are only coming at you on route one. That was the message to be gleaned from Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer's selection for Saturday's Test against Australia in Perth. Far from being chastened by the draw against Argentina two weeks ago, Meyer has indicated a tactical approach just the same, only more so.
This means the Boks intend to win the collisions and kick the ball behind the Wallabies. Pressure will be applied by the chasers and Morné Steyn is expected to kick the goals from the inevitable penalties that the Wallabies will concede under pressure. It might work, because Australia are at a low ebb right now, but the question is why the coach insists on such a conservative approach.
It is not as though he does not have options, but a siege mentality seems to have crept in and change is about as welcome as a man cooking sausages in a nudist camp. The Test debut of Duane Vermeulen at number eight has produced a back row, and indeed an entire pack, shorn of pace and handling skills. Hooker Adriaan Strauss is under an injury cloud, but he and Marcel Coetzee will have to play out of their skins to camouflage the lumbering play of the other six forwards.
The decision to replace Francois Hougaard with Ruan Pienaar at scrumhalf has merit, but everything points to the idea that Pienaar will be asked to kick the ball far more often than pass it. It is a melancholy fact that Steyn seems wedded to the idea of standing too far back and Meyer alluded to the form of his pivot when he said that Pienaar's inclusion would "take the pressure off Morné".
Why in heaven's name is that necessary? There are two flyhalves available to the coach, who are both bang in form and potential match-winners. Yet Pat Lambie has languished on the bench for the past two Tests without a single minute of game time and the gifted Elton Jantjies is not even in the squad. Instead, Meyer has selected on the bench the uncapped 20-year-old Johan Goosen, who has played one game of rugby in four months.
Work ethic and attitude
Goosen's selection means that Lambie is not even being considered as a flyhalf, but instead will provide cover at centre and fullback. The young man must wonder quite what he has done wrong to be treated as a spare part and Goosen must think that the game is very simple indeed. Meyer's quotes about the new kid on the block are very revealing:
"In my mind [Goosen] can become one of the great flyhalfs in world rugby. I've been very impressed with his work ethic and attitude since he joined the squad on Thursday in Johannesburg and we will keep on managing him carefully over the next few weeks."
It is the "work ethic and attitude" bit that will have opposition coaches smiling, whereas the rest of us will be wondering quite why Goosen needs to be managed carefully. He has just come back from a four-month break with a shoulder injury and he needs to play. Leave him with the Cheetahs and let him build his confidence. Do not stick him straight into the national squad and treat him like a messiah.
Criticism such as this will wash over Meyer. He has got where he is today with a successful template and, five Test matches into his tenure, he is not about to have a change of heart. But examining those five Tests gives a sense of foreboding ahead of Perth.
The three-match series against England produced two wins and a draw. In the first quarter of the second Test the Boks produced sublime rugby when, crucially, Hougaard passed the ball instead of kicking it. For most of the rest of the series the Boks were staid and predictable, so much so that a very average England team was able to neutralise their tactics in the final drawn game.
Against Argentina in Cape Town the Boks huffed and puffed, but they failed to blow their opponents' house down. In retrospect, however, they played pretty well, for a week later in Mendoza the Pumas revealed themselves as something rather better than an amalgam of strong set pieces in search of a game plan.
South Africa did not "disappoint" in Mendoza; they were made to work very hard to earn a draw. It is patronising to suggest that the Boks failed – the Pumas were disappointed with a draw and had Francois Steyn not completed a slightly fortuitous charge down, they would have taken the win their play deserved.
It is the aftermath of the result that should worry us. Instead of recognising the weak areas of the Bok game, the coach thinks that fewer mistakes will produce better results.
He may be right and in 12 months from now, if Goosen is the best flyhalf in the world and the Bok pack is carrying all before it, he will have the last laugh. But right now it feels as if any chuckles after Saturday's encounter will have an Australian accent.