Meyer begins the weak links test
It is not often in the life of an international coach that the opportunity presents itself to test a squad of players so thoroughly. Heyneke Meyer’s last match in charge was the nail-biting win against the All Blacks at Ellis Park a month ago. On the Highveld in perfect conditions, against the best team in the world on a record-breaking unbeaten run, the Springboks won 27-25.
This Saturday the same starting side will face Ireland on what the weather forecasters suggest will be a typical “soft” Dublin day.
Translated that means rain, wind, a fiercely partisan crowd and opponents who would make sticking your head in a bag of angry squirrels seem a faintly enticing prospect.
Accordingly, all eyes will be on flyhalf Handré Pollard. Such has been the quality of his introduction that, in just his seventh Test match, Pollard is expected to run the game.
To put that in perspective: at 20 years of age, with a handful of senior games behind him, against a home team ranked fifth in the world, a solid run for an hour in the Number 10 jersey will not be deemed good enough.
Talk about being set up to fail.
If the Boks are off their game at all, Pollard’s opposite number will dictate proceedings.
Johnny Sexton is the epitome of a northern hemisphere flyhalf; outstanding off the kicking tee, excellent kicking out of hand, competent in defence and about as unpredictable as an episode of Scooby Doo. This is where he differs from Pollard, whose pair of outrageous tries against New Zealand marked him out as extraordinary.
In the greater scheme of things, Meyer would love his team to be examined in extreme conditions away from home; as long as they win, of course.
With next year’s World Cup in England less than a year away, he needs to know whether there are any weak links in his squad and that is as true of the record-breaking Victor Matfield as it is of Pollard.
Matfield is up against an almost equally venerable and highly regarded opponent in Paul O’Connell. The mountain from Munster is 35 years old and 17 international caps shy of Matfield’s Springbok record. The pair have had some memorable tussles over the years and if Matfield is short of his best, O’Connell will exploit it.
In fact, Dublin has seldom brought out the best in South African teams. The Springboks have lost there four times, and Dawie de Villiers’ side scraped an eight-all draw in 1970. The latest De Villiers to captain the Springboks, Jean, has had two wins there since assuming the top job in 2012, but was a member of the 2006 side humbled 32-15.
Now is not the time to dwell on the past, however, for, after something of a false start as coach in 2012, Meyer has built a squad capable of winning a World Cup. This week’s match day 23 includes three centurions and six with 50 caps or more. The majority of the rest have almost all been blooded over the past two seasons, giving the group an enviable blend of youth and experience.
In contrast to many post-season tours, most of Meyer’s charges are rested, having not been part of the recent Currie Cup season.
In consequence they need to hit the ground running, for the most serious examinations arrive this week and the next, against England at Twickenham.
If there is to be an implosion it is most likely to occur in the front row. Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira will be targeted by both Ireland and England. By their own high standards they have not had a good year at international level, being shunted up, down and backwards by Argentina and failing to dominate a severely limited Australia pack in two tests.
Meyer chose to exclude a genuine tighthead prop from the bench, explaining that Julian Redelinghuys is “still new in the team and not familiar with our patterns of play and especially the line-out calls”. He has preferred Coenie Oosthuizen, while accepting that the Cheetahs man’s best position is loosehead and that he has battled with a neck injury this year.
In Northern Hemisphere conditions, good ball begins and ends with the front row. There are no poor players among the six front-row forwards Meyer has selected but, as is the case with Matfield and Pollard, anything less than their best will not be good enough.
If the tight five deliver acceptable ball, however, the Boks have the fire-power to make it a long afternoon for the Irish. The back row has a fine balance and, as good as he has been all year, it could be argued that Duane Vermeulen’s game is more suited to European conditions.
The real difficulty for the home side will arrive when Pollard gets first phase ball on the front foot. The young man’s talent and unpredictability are the stuff of nightmares for an opposition coach.
If the All Blacks could not defend him close to the line, be very sure that none of the sides the Boks face in the next month can either.
Meyer is not the kind of man to do what Jake White did 10 years ago, suggesting in a Dublin press conference that only two Irish players might be good enough to play for South Africa. It is not being arrogant to suggest, however, that Meyer’s team will have taken a significant step forward come Saturday night.