Guest writer Mike Bersiks asks whether Heyneke Meyer is learning anything from two close misses in our away leg in the antipodes.
I tend to be really disappointed in ”we should have won this one” Springbok performances. And the overseas matches against Australia and New Zealand definitely fall into this category. If the Bok forwards had played with the fire they showed against All Blacks in Perth the week before, I’m sure South Africa would have broken their winless streak against the Wallabies. Australia are always a side who grow an extra set of legs near the end of a match if they manage to stay within striking distance because of their good defence (and Berrick Barnes’ pinpoint goalkicking). Unlike the Springboks at the moment, the Wallabies remain a side who are capable of engineering tries when tackles are missed or defensive lines aren’t formed properly.
Unlike the flat performance in Perth, the Boks really seemed to be up for the match in Dunedin against the All Blacks. Doom-mongers were predicting a hiding at the new Forsyth Barr Stadium, but only a continued inability to finish off tryscoring opportunities and the continued poor form of Morne Steyn saw the All Blacks walk away with a win that wraps up the Rugby Championship. With the exception of the hapless Dean Greyling the Bok forwards were superb. With a true openside flank finally being selected in Francois Louw, and Duane Vermeulen continuing to look a good choice at number eight the loose trio looks balanced for the first time this season. And I must say that I was impressed by what could be Flip van der Merwe’s best performance in his 18 outings in a Bok jersey. Billed as the “new Bakkies” when he made his breakthrough Van der Merwe has never really convinced me, but he did a fine job in the absence of Eben Etsebeth.
Heyneke Meyer said before the three away games in the Rugby Championship that the pressure of playing overseas was what he was really going to use to evaluate his young squad, and see who should be included in the Bok group going forward. After the Argentina match in Mendoza and the disastrous experiment with the out-of-depth Jacques Potgieter, he seems to have woken up to two facts. One, is that he that fact that he can’t play the top teams in world rugby without a fetcher. He also seems to have realised that Ruan Pienaar is a far better scrumhalf than Francois Hougaard.
I would hope that he now concedes that his loyalty to the woefully out-of-form Morne Steyn has gone far enough. The Morne Steyn of 2009 would have ended up being the hero of Saturday’s Test – he would have ended up with a faultless goalkicking display and a ton of points due to an All Blacks side that was making plenty of mistakes. But surely there are too many good young number tens knocking on the door for Meyer to persist with the current version. Steyn previously justified his selection for the Springboks by being a points machine and if the points have dried up then Johan Goosen, Pat Lambie or Elton Jantjies are all better options at present. Goosen provides the opposition defensive line with far more problems for a number of reasons. He can get his backline away and provide the kind of inside-break danger that keeps defenders guessing as to whether he will try and make the break himself – a bit like what the All Blacks have got with Carter. If he sucks defenders on to him, then there’s also the force multiplier effect of leaving more holes for the likes of Frans Steyn to exploit. Wer saw that on Saturday when taking it up at pace and a good flat pace put Frans through and almost led to a try. If Goosen gets through on his own we’ve seen in Super Rugby that he’s got the pace and strength to leave the first line of defence behind and make real inroads. And he looks like he can kick some goals and give you nothing less in defence than what Steyn currently provides! After this Saturday it‘s a no-brainer to start Goosen in the home Rugby Championship matches. I wouldn’t discard Steyn, who after all is sitting second on the all-time Bok points list, completely but he needs to play himself back into contention at provincial or Super Rugby level.
I have to say though that if I was the coach I would also have erred on the side of caution and not started Goosen in the number ten jersey on Saturday. I would have been thinking less about the famous win against the All Blacks in Dunedin in 2008 than their dismal 28-0 loss in 1999. There, a promising young flyhalf was thrown to the wolves and it stayed with him for the rest of his career. But I would have put Goosen on at halftime after it became obvious that the game was slipping away with Steyn not coming to the party, and I wouldn’t have chosen Zane Kirchner as my fullback. I don’t believe Kirchner has what it takes to play top-level Test rugby as an outside back, and his shortcomings are contributing to the fact that the Boks are too predictable and easy to defend against. Don’t get me wrong – Kirchner has had the season of his life for the Bulls, and he’s a big unit, he’s got good hands and is solid when contesting for the high-ball. But a true international class outside back needs to have some sort of stepping ability and needs to have the sort of gas that gets him over the chalk when he gets a chance. If Kirchner was the All Black fullback would he have scored that try on Saturday or would he have been hauled in by Juandre Kruger? With Israel Dagg clear with twenty metres to go the Bok cover defence had no chance. Because of his lack of pace and ability to contest an up and under Kirchner is only playing to his strengths when he hoists everything into the air. But with Pat Lambie, Gio Aplon or perhaps Jaco Taute at the back the danger of the Boks running the ball back from broken play becomes far more pronounced and a lot harder to defend against.
The Springboks have only scored one try in each of the last three matches and if you’re only getting one five-pointer a match it’s going to be hard to win against teams like New Zealand, Australia or France regardless of how you kick at goal. The Rugby Championship is gone and Meyer needs to keep making those changes in order to get players with that force multiplier effect, that can make more tries more likely, into the green and gold 10 and 15 shirts. South Africa have proved that we have the forwards to win games, even without the superlative Bismarck du Plessis. I’ve got no problem with us mauling the opposition into submission as long as the Bok backs can come to the party and finish the job!