As we brace ourselves for another marathon edition of a tired Super Rugby tournament, rugby fans can take solace in the fact that this year there is a World Cup around the corner.
With every other year providing bloated and routine fare, the World Cup, like that other quadrennial spectacle, the British and Irish Lions’ tour, remains the one still point of glamour in a sport trying its best to catch up with cricket in wilful self-destruction.
Although many rugby pundits bemoan the fact that the World Cup sucks up all the oxygen of the sport, the inverse is true. With the demise of traditional tours and the incessant tournaments played by South African teams, it is ultimately the Webb Ellis Cup, shimmering in the background, that lends the game true spectacle.
For this reason, this year’s Super Rugby has added interest as players do battle not only for their franchise but equally to be noticed by the Bok coach, Heyneke Meyer.
If the players are enthused by the global showpiece, surely so too is Meyer. The World Cup represents Meyer’s last chance of leaving a real legacy as Bok coach.
With no silverware, and one solitary victory against the old foe, the All Blacks, reports of Meyer’s success have been greatly exaggerated.
In 2014 the media and the Bok management often liked to boast of Meyer having the second-best (now the third after last year’s European tour) winning ratio since readmission in 1992, but the reality is, if the Rugby Championship had not, in 2012, added fixtures against Argentina at the expense of fixtures against Australia and New Zealand, his win record would probably be mediocre.
The good news for him is that, as Jake White realised, everything will be forgotten and forgiven if he steers the Boks to a World Cup victory in England later this year. To do that, he will, first and foremost, need a large dose of luck.
The Boks have won both their World Cups with help from referees missing such things as Abdelatif Benazzi’s apparent try against us in the 1995 semifinal, or Frédéric Michalak’s forward pass that helped knock the All Blacks out early in 2007.
But luck only gets you so far. You can’t win the tournament on it alone. Meyer, on evidence of last year’s results, has some serious work to do.
Most importantly, one gets the impression that Meyer needs to find a sense of calm. No matter what he does, or who he selects, the reality of world rugby is that the Boks arrive at every tournament with a chance of winning it. The crucial thing is whether your team arrives believing they are winners. It is that belief that gets a team over the line in the crucial final five minutes of a close test match.
The biggest threat is a manic fear of losing – something that Meyer, judging by his contortions in the coaches’ box, is prone to. It is therefore telling that Meyer has added Professor Pieter Kruger to his management team, a world-renowned specialist in mental performance. But, as the head man, Meyer is also going to have to buy into this.
When Kitch Christie took the Boks to their 1995 dream, he refused to get excited about the Boks’ historic victory over Australia in the 1995 tournament’s opening match, and equally refused to get upset about the subsequent shockers against minnows Romania and Canada. Famously, he barely mentioned Jonah Lomu in his team planning before the final against the All Blacks.
Meyer needs a dose of that medicine. And it begins with selection. Who is his first choice fly half? Is he really going to pick Willie le Roux at fullback in a knockout match? Can he afford to keep indulging his affinity for Coenie Oosthuizen? Will the Boks fall apart if he is unable to pick Jean de Villiers or Fourie du Preez, players he has invested with a kind of aura?
There is perhaps not time enough to deal with the predictability of our dependence on box kicks, line-out mauls, and frontal one-off runners. But that hardly matters. In a World Cup, all pattern collapses under pressure. Collective temperament is everything.
If the right players are on the park, and the coaching team has gifted them with belief and simplicity, the Cup is for the taking. For us to win, Meyer needs to find his answers, and a zen-like calm, as he watches Super Rugby this year. It’s up to him.