Last weekend’s thrilling Test against the All Blacks showed that the Springboks are genuine contenders for the World Cup, but they have to be able to produce their best play for 80+ minutes and they also have to be clinical in taking points from whatever opportunities are presented to them.
A team has seldom dominated the All Blacks in almost every facet of play as much as the Springboks did at Ellis Park last weekend, but the Kiwis showed why they are the undisputed number one side and the favourites for the World Cup by somehow still engineering a victory. They did this by being ruthlessly clinical – the few chances they had to score, they took.
You know a coach is feeling the pressure when he makes 25 excuses in a dozen minutes at his post-match press conference, but there’s no doubt the last fortnight has been hugely frustrating for Heyneke Meyer as his Springbok team have shown such potential before faltering at the final hurdle in successive Tests against Australia and New Zealand.
The Springboks are injury-hit and they are not getting the crucial 50/50 decisions at the moment, but the bottom line is that they have shown a disappointing lack of composure when matches reach the critical final quarter.
In fact, the abiding feature of the Heyneke Meyer era has been the infuriating tendency of his team to play both sublime and mediocre rugby in the same match.
Solving this problem before the World Cup is obviously critical and I hope Meyer will be looking at a very interesting book which was launched this week – Creative Rugby by Dr Kobus Neethling and former Springbok captain Naas Botha.
Neethling is very well qualified in the field of brain skills and creativity and he says the book may answer the question why South Africa does not win the Rugby Championship way more often than three times in 20 years given that we have more players than New Zealand and Australia put together and wonderful talent to choose from.
As Botha pointed out at the launch, it’s very clear in this professional age that what makes the All Blacks better than the rest is what they have between their ears given that the science is there to make all international players as strong and as fast as each other.
The great flyhalf’s main gripe about South African rugby in general is that we go very overboard on game plans. He told horror stories of players who have come to him and said their coach, even at franchise level, came and told them that if they don’t put the ball under their arm and drive at the first channel then they will find someone else who will. Botha blamed the devolution of Morne Steyn from a creative, all-round flyhalf into someone considered now to just be a kicker on the strictures of game plans.
The authors added that teams need to have game plans, but that these are just a springboard because matches are fluid and sides that are stuck in their plan and can’t think on their feet don’t win.
Neethling said the work he did with Paul Treu when he was the Springboks Sevens coach proved very quickly how effective using creative thinking and knowing the brain profiles of your players can be.
The fear of losing is a very strong force in South African rugby, mostly caused by impatient fans and administrators, and it causes coaches to stick to what they know best.
When the Springboks were very close to the All Blacks’ line last weekend, against 14 men, why did they keep trying to bash through with the forwards and not try Damian de Allende, who had been bumping off defenders all game, charging through on an angled run?
The difference between the New Zealand and South African mindsets becomes very clear when you consider the local reaction to Richie McCaw’s match-winning try: instead of applauding the creativity and skill behind a clever piece of rugby, excuses were quickly sought in the law-book, trying to label the move as illegal.
I am happy, however, that Meyer is trying to innovate and is desperately trying to get his players to play what is in front of them. He drums in the importance of decision-making at every opportunity, but at times he must wonder if he has inherited from the pipeline the rugby equivalent of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman from the Wizard of Oz …