Boks battle through testing 2012

Sun, 25 Nov 2012 14:14
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Quintin van Jaarsveld highlights the good, the bad and the ugly of Heyneke Meyer’s first year in charge of the Springboks.

Disappointing results and frustratingly slow progress dominated what was a gruelling rebuilding year for Springbok rugby.

2012 was always going to be a difficult year for the Springboks. A new coach, a new captain and a new crop of players were left to pick up the pieces after a legend-laden South African side surrendered the Webb Ellis Cup following their quarterfinal exit in last year’s World Cup.

In stepped Heyneke Meyer, the man many believed should have been handed the reins four years earlier, to initiate the Springbok resurgence in what would be the longest ever season for South Africa’s elite.  

He would soon realise the true enormity of the task and, at the half-way stage of the 12-Test season, the pressure associated with the poisoned chalice that is the Springbok coaching job had already taken its toll on Meyer.

A dour draw against an average England side in Port Elizabeth followed by a first ever stalemate with Argentina and defeat to an out-of-sorts Wallaby side underlined the growing pains Meyer’s new-look Springboks would endure throughout the year.   

A frank assessment of Meyer’s debut year as Bok boss is that it simply wasn’t good enough. A win ratio of 58 percent ranks Meyer as the third-worst Bok coach in the modern era, with only Harry Viljoen (55 percent) and Rudolph Straeuli (46 percent) having poorer first-year returns.

Mitigating factors, whilst not to be considered as excuses, should be taken into account when reflecting on the season. A plethora of greats departed after the World Cup. In their place - an inexperienced crop littered with Test rookies and a crippling injury list that further depleted Meyer’s resources.

Meyer would have set out to build his squad around senior players such as Schalk Burger and Bismarck du Plessis, but quickly had to shelf that plan when both stalwarts were sidelined for the season.

Given that the team had a week to prepare for the season opener against England, Meyer made the right call to keep things simple, back the tried-and-tested internationals and play a basic gameplan.

Where Meyer erred was failing to evolve the strategy following the series win over the old enemy. Instead, he stuck to an outdated approach which was negotiated with the greatest of ease by the All Blacks.

A season record of seven wins, three losses and two draws emphasises the need for a change in approach and mindset. Meyer’s Boks were painfully predictable, playing with the purpose of milking penalties rather than showing any intent of scoring tries other than from driving mauls.

Selection wise, persisting with misfiring Morné Steyn was a grave error in judgment. With the Boks’ strategy so heavily reliant on accurate goal-kicking, it’s baffling to comprehend why it took until the seventh Test for Meyer to finally axe the Bulls flyhalf.

The blind faith shown in Jacques Potgieter and Dean Greyling when it was apparent the duo were out of their depth at Test level strengthened accusations of provincialism, whilst Meyer’s habit of talking up the opposition before every Test did little to instil confidence in the team.

Referencing the All Blacks’ dominance of the global game in recent years ad nauseam in the lead-up to the Tests in Dunedin and Soweto portrayed - in no uncertain terms - a sense of hope rather than belief within the Bok camp.

Optimism and patience, however, is necessary and in a ‘glass half full’ case, it wasn’t all doom and gloom in 2012. Future greats in Eben Etzebeth and Marcell Coetzee exploded onto the Test arena and Johan Goosen, Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute and Duane Vermeulen - all players who will form the core of the side heading into the 2015 World Cup - were all given their first taste of Test rugby.

European-based Francois Louw was a revelation at openside flank and Bryan Habana finally returned to form, as did JP Pietersen and Ruan Pienaar.

Depth was spawned as a result of the injury-ravaged season and a rare northern hemisphere clean sweep saw the Boks climb to second place on the IRB World Rankings and ensured they finish as one of the top four seeds for the 2015 World Cup pool allocation draw on December 3.

Springbok season synopsis:

2012 Results (W7, L3, D2 – 58% win ratio):

South Africa 22-17 England (Durban)
South Africa 36-27 England (Johannesburg)
South Africa 14-14 England (Port Elizabeth)
South Africa 27-6 Argentina (Cape Town)
South Africa 16-16 Argentina (Mendoza)
South Africa 19-26 Australia (Perth)
South Africa 11-21 New Zealand (Dunedin)
South Africa 31-8 Australia (Pretoria)
South Africa 16-32 New Zealand (Soweto)
South Africa 16-12 Ireland (Dublin)
South Africa 21-10 Scotland (Edinburgh)
South Africa 16-15 England (London)

The good:

•    Five-try, 31-8 drubbing of the Wallabies at Loftus after a winless away leg in the Rugby Championship.
•    Moving up to second place on the IRB World Rankings and finishing in band one for the World Cup pool allocation draw.
•    Series-winning 36-27 victory over England in Johannesburg.
•    First northern hemisphere clean sweep since 2008.
•    The rise of Eben Etzebeth and the emergence of other future stars.
•    Bryan Habana’s return to form.
•    European-based duo Francois Louw and Ruan Pienaar fulfilling key roles.
•    Excellent line-out.

The bad:

•    Utilising an outdated gameplan.
•    Slumping to a 14-all draw in the third Test against England in Port Elizabeth.
•    Imploding against Australia in Perth.
•    Rising injury toll.
•    Selection blunders.
•    Lack of transformation.
•    Goal-kicking.
•    Francois Hougaard’s failed experiment at wing.

The ugly:

•    58 percent win ratio.
•    Stale offence.
•    The fall of Morné Steyn.
•    32-16 home humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks.
•    Historic draw with Argentina in Mendoza.

By Quintin van Jaarsveld

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