COMING to the end of his first season, South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer is striving to mould a new consistency in the Springboks’ make-up, starting with his young team for this weekend’s EMC Autumn Test clash with Scotland.
He is missing half of what many Bok fans would consider their first-choice line-up and has made just two changes to the side that came from behind to beat Ireland 16-12 in Dublin on Saturday, in order to expose a particularly inexperienced back five in the pack to more Test rugby.
Gurthrö Steenkamp is back, having left South Africa for Toulouse and been moved to the fringes, due to injury to injured prop Tendai Mtawarira, while the elusive Stormers centre Juan De Jongh comes in at No 13 for Jaco Taute.
But Meyer accepts that expectations are such in South Africa that nothing less than matching the All Blacks’ 51-point tally against Scotland would be considered a success back home.
“We’ve got tough supporters who want 50 points in every single Test match,” he said, with a shrug, “and last time here we lost. But, without being a romantic, every game is different.
“New Zealand put 60 points on Ireland at home and, in the previous game, [Dan] Carter put over a drop-goal in the last minutes to win the game, so you can’t compare two games. The conditions are different and previous teams of mine [have been criticised because they] didn’t score enough points but then won finals.
“New Zealand are obviously a quality side, but we have to focus on the way we want to go. Winning is non-negotiable. I don’t care if it’s by one point or two points; we just want to go out there and win the game.”
The Springboks are a very different side but it is a clear sign of the strength in depth Meyer has to call on, with world-class talent sprayed throughout the side, that the squad he named yesterday is still a clear favourite to beat a Scottish team with more experience.
There are 13 survivors in the 23 from the squad that suffered the shock 21-17 defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield two years ago, namely starting forwards Willem Alberts, Adrian Strauss and Jannie Du Plessis, and backs Jean de Villiers, Ruan Pienaar, Pat Lambie, Zane Kirchner and wing Francois Hougaard, as well as replacements CJ van der Linde, Flip van der Merwe, Morné Steyn and Lwazi Mvovo, who made his debut that day.
De Jongh at outside centre (skipper De Villiers slipping back to No 12) is the least experienced player in the back line, with 12 caps but the back five in the pack boast fewer Test matches combined (53) than Ross Ford (61). Mind you, caps never were a sole measure of quality.
The differing challenges facing Meyer and Scotland coach Andy Robinson are fascinating. Meyer has more knowledge than most South Africans of the Scottish game, having toured here with the Teachers Training College club team and South Western Districts in his early days as a coach. He coached against Robinson when he was part of the Boks management in 1999 and Robinson was with England, and he counts a number of Scottish coaches among friends, so when he speaks of a respect for the Scottish game one senses that it comes from deeper than the usual visiting coach platitudes.
He launched his tenure as South Africa’s head coach in June with two wins and a draw against England, then defeated and drew with Argentina, lost to Australia in Perth and New Zealand in Dunedin, before beating the Wallabies convincingly in Pretoria and losing fairly comfortably to the All Blacks in Soweto.
The win over Ireland last weekend was his first away from home so he is keen to build on that, while working without many key players.
But Meyer believes his new kids of the Bok are maturing quickly, and thinks they will develop a stronger mental toughness on a tour that exposes them to a different weather and style of game.
“My whole aim is, by the World Cup in England, to have these guys who are 23/24 years old with 40, almost 50 caps. That’s where you want to be and I think in the next three years that would be superb.
“As a South Africa head coach, you don’t sleep a lot,” he continued. “And while, on one hand there is that great excitement, on the other, I really don’t know how I’m going to pick a team when these guys come back, and you look at the quality players that I have.
“So, although this was a tough year, building the culture and getting a new game-plan going – we’re still not happy with that or the fitness and conditioning – it’s a great prospect looking forward to next year.
“A lot of this has happened by accident, with players leaving South Africa and so many injuries, but I’m really proud of this young team and I think if we can keep the nucleus together we can be some team going forward.”