Mind over matter for Bok coach

The South Africans will be facing the fearsome Ma’a Nonu and the rest of the rampaging All Blacks. (Juan Mabromata, AFP)

The South Africans will be facing the fearsome Ma’a Nonu and the rest of the rampaging All Blacks. (Juan Mabromata, AFP)

So, technically their Test against South Africa in Soweto on Saturday will be irrelevant. But it is not, for ­various ­reasons.

Principally, of course, no match between the Springboks and the All Blacks is ever irrelevant. The visitors are defending a 15-match winning streak and victory in Orlando would keep them on course to beat the record they share with the Springboks of 17 in a row.
They won at the same venue in 2010 and are capable of doing so again.

But the main reason why this match is not irrelevant rests closer to home. Last week in Pretoria, the Springboks turned the Australian Wallabies into a frightened and fragile rabble. If, as is highly likely, the Wallabies lose to Argentina this week in Rosario, it should be the end of the road for coach Robbie Deans.

At the other end of the scale sits Heyneke Meyer. While Deans was counting heads and checking that there are 22 fit men left in Australia to compete in a Test match, Meyer was happily selecting an unchanged team for Saturday. It was the first time it had happened during his tenure and it was surely no coincidence that an appearance in front of the media on Wednesday featured Meyer at his most relaxed.

It was, of course, the first time since taking over that he did not have to explain to a disappointed audience the reason for retaining his flyhalf. Rather, like the man who banged his head against a brick wall because it felt so good when he stopped, Meyer is now able to close the book on Morné Steyn.

That is not to say that this particular unchanged side is the finished article. It could be argued that Jaco Taute is fortunate to retain his place ahead of Juan de Jongh, and Francois Hougaard is starting to look a little out of place on the wing. JP Pietersen is back in training with the Sharks and Hougaard's immediate future may lie on the bench.

Then there is the vexed question of place kicking. Meyer said: "We are averaging 50% with kicks at goal this season, which means that we could have won seven out of eight Tests if we had kicked better."

It is for that very reason that Steyn was finally dropped and why the win against Australia, comfortable though it was, should have been so much greater. Johan Goosen picked up an ankle injury early on, which contributed to him missing his first two kicks at goal. Ruan Pienaar stepped into the breach and kicked well without ever suggesting that he will keep the job.

Meyer said that in the long run a little bit of failure would make Goosen a better player, which is a wise sentiment bestowed on a young man who has found the game way too easy thus far. It may explain why, once again, the coach dithered for far too long before bringing on Patrick Lambie and, finally, Elton Jantjies. Explain, but not condone. He must learn the error of his ways sooner rather than later.

Meyer is a more complex character than many believe. His rugby philosophy is built on trust, which is why his selections can seem so conservative. But he also recognises that the psyche grows scar tissue as time goes by and the best way to avoid bad memories is to pick players before they have had time to amass any.

Six of the current squad are 21 or younger. To put that in perspective, a photograph emerged this week of an 11-year-old Johan Goosen posing next to then recently capped Springbok Jean de Villiers. A decade on, the pair are playing in the same team, which must make De Villiers feel keenly each of his 31 years.

The odds should be stacked in South Africa's favour this week. New Zealand have secured the title and have travelled across the time zones to be here, arriving only on Tuesday morning. A normal team might be competitive for an hour and then succumb to the thin air of the Highveld, but the All Blacks are not a normal team, as they proved in 2010 at the same venue.

It was John Smit's 100th test and he was allowed to take his children on to the field to soak up the atmosphere of a record-breaking crowd. A total of 94 700 people came to party, but Richie McCaw's men sent the vast majority of them home disappointed. South Africa led 22-17 with five minutes to go, but lost 27-22 as the visitors grabbed two late tries.

Meyer has sensibly fought shy of the normal "backs to the wall, tackle, tackle, tackle" talk and admitted that "You don't win against the All Blacks by going out there and trying to keep the score low". With a little luck we might see a classic - and even if the Springboks lose, another glimpse of the bright future hinted at during the Loftus Test.

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