The pressures of being the Springbok coach are well-documented and the fact Heyneke Meyer has gone very grey on top attests to them, but the time has surely come for the man behind the wheel of our Rugby World Cup campaign to (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor and dig at his past employment) grab the bull by the horns.
The match against Argentina today is the penultimate one the Springboks will play before the World Cup and, while all the other contenders are auditing the stocks at their disposal and mixing and matching their teams, Meyer is sticking to the tried and tested.
The fear of losing is a terrible affliction in South African rugby, as mentioned in this column before, but the Springbok coach is doing the confidence of his back-up players and the chances of his team being able to ride the inevitable injuries that will happen between now and the end of October no good at all.
The most disappointing selection for me this weekend is that of Pat Lambie on the bench. The fact that Handre Pollard is the first-choice flyhalf for the World Cup is all good and well, but what if the 21-year-old again struggles in the heavier conditions of the northern hemisphere or is ruled out by injury? He is already struggling with concussion, making his selection for a fourth weekend in a row even more unnecessary.
Having previously said the matches against Argentina will be used to get back-up players on the park, Meyer has now consigned that idea to the rubbish bin, the fear of losing being the reason.
“Pat hasn’t played a lot but I just felt… you still have to go and win the Test match. If it wasn’t South Africa you probably could have played a lot of players, but in South Africa you have to win. That’s most important.
“I probably wanted to give Pat a run at 15 but I thought that we have to have some kind of continuity in this game. He’ll probably come from the bench and play there,” was Meyer’s thoroughly unconvincing answer when he was asked why Lambie was not getting a starting place in Durban. So Pollard is the Springboks’ only flyhalf at this stage.
It really does not matter much in the bigger picture, although it would be a highly disturbing result, if the Springboks had to lose to Argentina these next two weeks, so Meyer should really be showing a bit more faith in the back-up players. Especially Lambie, who won him Tests against Australia and New Zealand last year and was an assured performer on the end-of-year tour, and has done more than most to delay any thoughts of Meyer getting the axe until it is now too late.
By delaying the introduction of fringe players, Meyer has made it clear that his favoured starting team for the World Cup has already been chosen and any changes will only be by accident, with Jesse Kriel and Lood de Jager the two bolters who have played their way into the picture.
Meyer has also shown a lack of sensitivity towards transformation by not giving Lwazi Mvovo a starting berth on the wing and Black fringe players like him, Siya Kolisi, Scarra Ntubeni and Oupa Mohoje can certainly blame a lack of opportunity if they don’t make the World Cup squad. Bryan Habana, Willie le Roux and Kriel must all be assured of their World Cup places so why play them again?
Kolisi could also surely have started ahead of another World Cup certainty in Marcell Coetzee, while De Jager and Etzebeth are similarly assured of their places.
Obviously it’s been a giant mistake to think of these pre-World Cup matches as some sort of World Cup trial; Meyer’s mind is pretty much made up and his focus is on winning these games, as fleeting as that success may be. The irony is that by not beating New Zealand and Australia, he has only dug himself deeper into a hole.
Whoever runs out for the Springboks against Argentina, the way to beat them as convincingly as the Wallabies and All Blacks have managed is by moving the ball away from the contact zones. Quick hands and fewer collisions means less rucks and less chances for the Pumas to slow the game down. In all previous Rugby Championship matches they have managed to drag the Springboks down to their level, but the fear of losing also makes it hard to play with any freedom.