SOUTH Africa have long played to a certain tradition and when Heyneke Meyer stepped up to the Bok helm from the most traditional of Afrikaner teams, the Blue Bulls, there was a widespread belief that the men in green and gold would not stray from that type.
Strength lay at its heart, and rugby internationals were seen by many supporters across the high veld as the perfect arena to tell the world that South Africa were the world’s strongest nation. They have produced some of the biggest specimens in rugby, but what marks them out is that big, raw-boned, muscular men are not rare, rather commonplace, and so rugby understandably remains the top sport in the Republic.
Outside the 15-year isolation from world sport through apartheid, South Africa’s battle has raged with New Zealand to be world rugby’s No 1 nation. It is no less intense now as the Springboks have become more competitive against the All Blacks despite losing both encounters in this season’s Rugby Championship, by 14 points and 11, finishing second in the event.
But now they seem to be learning from New Zealand and expanding their outlook to a more devastating attacking game. Head coaches of South Africa do not have it easy, especially those who wish to move away from the one-dimensional, brute strength approach, as that is what the millions of Bokke fans want and expect.
Meyer has taken his time and by virtue of losing just three from 12 Test matches in his first year in charge, and just two this term, feels emboldened to move outside traditional parameters. He pays tribute to the work of his Scottish colleague Richie Gray in helping the South African players to be as effective on the ground as they are carrying ball at full height and praises his other assistants highly for sharing his belief that South Africa have to aim for total rugby if they are to make a serious bid to topple the All Blacks.
“It’s always easier the second year round,” he explained. “The first year you’re always under pressure just to win games and in the second year you have a little bit more time to prepare.
“There’s a perception about me that my teams never score tries and just like to kick, but that’s not true. Most of my teams have scored tries and, to be fair, the players must get the credit for scoring lots of tries and Bryan [Habana] has been one of the best-scoring wingers.
“We want to play attractive rugby; we want to play total rugby, but that’s really about the guys learning to make the right decisions. If it’s a four-on-one in your own 22, then I always want the players to move it – and we’ve scored a few of those tries already. But if there’s a great defensive line then you find the space elsewhere, and we have to find that balance.
“One of the main areas of improvement for us has been the breakdown and by getting quicker ball there is more confidence in the players to move the ball. So the team confidence has grown, but you’re only as good as your last game. This is going to be another very tough game against Scotland, but I’m very happy with the way we’re attacking at this stage.”
Sunday will throw up an intriguing tactical battle, as Scotland’s success in this fixture in the past has relied on South Africa’s inability to deviate from a plan A, even when their route is blocked by an unmoving defensive wall. They may wish to now, but for all that Scots delight in having beaten the Boks, while never having claimed victory against the All Blacks, in a history of meetings that stretches back to 1906, South Africa have won 18 matches to Scotland’s five. They know their brute strength has still been the winner on most occasions.
While every other team seeks dominant ball-carriers to burst open defensive gaps, the Boks have them sprouting from every limb, but that is not without its problems as chief powerhouse, Willem Alberts, is a doubt for Sunday because of a damaged shoulder, suffered in one of his 19 tackles at the Millennium Stadium. While Meyer said he would not risk him if not pain-free come Sunday he wants the big hitter at Murrayfield.
It will be a formidable pack in any case, as Bakkies Botha makes his return after seemingly retiring after the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Botha comes into the side in place of Eben Etzebeth, whose running battle with Jim Hamilton in Nelspruit in the summer cost the Scotland lock ten minutes in the sin-bin and potentially Scotland the game, while veteran prop Gurthro Steenkamp and hooker Adriaan Strauss replace Tendai Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis in a new-look front row. In the back division, the unpredictable new running threat Willie le Roux returns at full-back with Patrick Lambie, he of Scottish grandparents, taking over from Morne Steyn at fly-half.
South Africa will monitor the fitness of Steyn (back), named on the bench, and Alberts and if the flanker fails to regain full fitness, Siya Kolisi will bring a more typically athletic openside threat to the back row.
So there is a bit of experimentation going on with the Boks, as there is with Scott Johnson’s home team selection, and that may create cracks Scotland can exploit. This will be tighthead prop Frans Malherbe’s first game with Strauss and Steenkamp, though the 22-year-old sent a clear message to the coaches, with 15 tries in a strong display in the loose in Cardiff.
Botha’s return, alongside a relatively new occupant of the five jersey and lineout caller, Flip van der Merwe, is particularly interesting. The 34-year-old lock moved to Toulon and has become a legend there, but he is back with the national squad on this tour and has been handed the opportunity to prove that his ability still matches his desire to represent South Africa.
“We want to see where Bakkies stands,” Meyer explained. “He has been brilliant with the team and he has brought some fresh vibes, and while he will not like me saying he’s old he has been great with the youngsters.
“I had a discussion this morning with Bakkies and I first want to see if he’s good enough; that’s always been the most important thing in team selection for me. He’s been really good in training and I’ve been impressed. I have coached Bakkies since he was about 20 years old and since he joined us [in tour] he’s in probably one of the best conditions I’ve seen him in, but guys have to show that they are still good enough to play for South Africa.
“He has been really great for the team and he is here to serve, and has talked to the youngsters, given them advice and got them up. So it’s up to him.”
Meyer is an astute character, and there is a genuine respect in the way he discusses and dissects Scotland and where they could cause his team problems. So while pleased with the improving breakdown skills, he rates Scottish locks Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton highly and is concerned about the lineout. He is aware of the new attacking dangers in Scotland’s back line, Sean Maitland in particular having missed the summer tour due to Lions duty and Duncan Taylor offering something new, so for all the talk of improving their attack, one expects also to see some trademark bruising Bokke rugby on Sunday.
“We got our tour off to a good start last week against Wales in Cardiff and the focus this week has been on further improvement in a number of key areas of the game,” Meyer added, “but we know this will be a very tough Test match. Games with Scotland always are.”
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