Coach Heyneke Meyer is sticking to his guns despite what he called the “philosophical and romanticised” talk about game plans as the Springboks headed off to Australia on Saturday night.
The draws with Argentina in Mendoza and England in Port Elizabeth, and the underwhelming wins alongside those stalemates, have had critics blasting Meyer for his “staid”, “one-dimensional”, “forward-dominated” and “kicking” game plan.
But Meyer shot down those criticisms, saying the Springboks were playing in much the same fashion as every other leading nation in the world.
“All this talk about game plans is totally philosophical and romanticised. Eighty percent of the game plans of other international teams are the same and there is no such thing as Plans A, B, C and D, that’s just folklore,” Meyer said.
What has clearly frustrated – perhaps even angered – him has been all the sniping that he is merely using a Bulls game plan that revolves around kicking.
“About the kicking game. New Zealand kicked the most last year and won the World Cup, while the Stormers topped the log in SuperRugby and I think they kicked the second-most in the competition. Argentina kicked more than us last weekend, but everyone praised them. If we get quick ball, on the front foot, obviously I don’t want the guys to kick, but it’s about reading the situation,” Meyer said.
Flyhalf Morne Steyn has been pilloried for just kicking the ball away in Mendoza, but the statistics certainly offer him some backing. According toruckingoodstats.com, of the 33 balls Steyn received in Mendoza, he kicked just nine of them.
The idea that there are several different game plans being employed in international rugby these days is naive. Rugby is a simple game and the objectives are almost universal: get momentum and quick ball and then create space in the defensive lines that have become so suffocating in the modern era.
“Most tries come from broken-field ball or turnovers. It’s not about the game plan, it’s about reading the situation and the more experienced players read the situation better.
“If the defence is good in tight, then you want the ball to go wider because that’s where the space is. But if the defence is better out wide, then you have to go through the middle. It’s just common sense, reading the situation.
“We use the same game plan that has won World Cups, although some teams are more forward-orientated and others are more backline-orientated. New Zealand have both forwards and backs in the mix and that’s the route we want to go.
“But you have to attack where the defence is weak, whether that be on the blindside or out wide, or under the high ball,” Meyer said.
There were times, of course, when the Springboks looked utterly clueless on attack against Argentina and Meyer admits that vision and “reading the situation” are two areas that still require a lot of work. He believes he does not get the raw material to enable him to play the fancy offload game that the All Blacks use so proficiently.
“Australia and New Zealand are both better than us at reading the situation because of the way their players have been brought up, they teach them how to create space from day one.
“If you have someone like Sonny Bill Williams in your backline then you can play off him, or you can use those little pop passes amongst the forwards. But that takes time, we haven’t even got the base in place yet and the current game plan suits the Springboks. You can’t get to Point E in the game plan if you haven’t even covered Point A yet.”
But before everyone gives up hope and doesn’t even bother watching the Springboks in Perth next Saturday from 12:35pm, South Africa’s current approach might just work against the Wallabies.
Australia’s strength is undoubtedly amongst their backs, especially since they have lost world-class forwards such as David Pocock, James Horwill and Wycliff Palu, but, as the All Blacks showed, even the Wallaby dazzlers require front-foot ball from their forwards.
The Springboks will concentrate heavily on their in-form scrum and Meyer looks set to make the lineout a key weapon with Duane Vermeulen at eighthman providing an additional jumper.
“We’re not going to underestimate Australia’s forwards because they do have a very good pack, Nathan Sharpe is very experienced and they have a great back row. But we have to target them up front. We must definitely put pressure on them at the scrum, where we’ve been impressive against England and Argentina, two strong scrummaging sides.
“Australia tend to flood the breakdown out wide, that’s where you can lose the ball, and they are very dangerous with quick ball. So it’s very important that the backs clean out as well. We will have to be very direct against Australia and if we kick aimlessly, we’ll be in trouble because they’re very good at counter-attacking,” Meyer said.
We’ve heard it all before, of course, about the Springboks physically dominating the Wallabies, but lately that hasn’t come to pass. Australia have won the last four meetings between the two sides and, if they triumph in Perth, they will set a new national record for successive wins against South Africa.
The World Cup-winning team of 1999/2000 also won four in a row, but the current Wallaby team is surely a poor shadow of that great side and hopefully the thought of losing to the present bunch will prove to be extra motivation for the Springboks.
So, in the interests of winning, the Springboks will be quite content to let Australia do all the running next weekend – preferably from inside their own half, with slow ball and a pack that is moving backwards. Much like South Africa were forced to do in Mendoza last week.