Boks to field potent mix

Heyneke Meyer has meticulously gone about ensuring that in World Cup year he has a powerful squad dynamic from which to choose, writes JON CARDINELLI in Sport Monthly

In early 2012, Meyer outlined his plan for sustained success. He said there should be a drive to succeed every Saturday, and not just at a World Cup that is held every four years. He said that every selection would be based on a player’s ability and not on their age, geographic location, or past deeds.

Meyer stressed the need for balance in a squad. He felt that a team needed youthful energy as much as it needed experience, and that you couldn’t risk going into a major tournament with too much of one and not enough of the other.

It’s worth reflecting on these statements and goals, some five months before the start of the 2015 World Cup. Meyer’s Boks have recorded some notable results over the past three seasons, and boast a 70% win record. The coach has succeeded in developing an extended group of 35 to 40 players who are experienced and talented. In a sense, a lot of the hard work has already been done, and all that remains is for Meyer to strike the right balance when selecting his 31-man squad.

After a 2013 Test season that saw South Africa achieving their highest win percentage (83%) in 15 years, Sport Monthly magazine suggested that Meyer was caught between a rock and a hard place. The results confirmed that the Boks were on the right track, and the stats (the most tries on average by a Test team) showed that they had progressed in terms of game plan. On the back of such success, some coaches would have been tempted to lock down the senior players for the next two years with a view to the 2015 World Cup. Would Meyer be tempted or would he remain wary of a common mistake – assuming a great player will maintain their form indefinitely?

The temptation to keep all the senior players must have been great. Veterans such as Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, JP Pietersen, and Bakkies Botha all returned to the Bok side in 2013, and proved they were still among the best in the world in their positions. Meyer could well have backed the rest of his senior core in 2014 and through to the business end of the World Cup. But if he had done so, he would have compromised on that youthful energy and thus upset a delicate balance.

That is not to say Meyer didn’t experiment. Juan Smith, a World Cup winner in 2007, attracted the attention of the Bok selectors after some outstanding performances for Toulon in Europe. And yet, when he was given another chance with the Boks in a Rugby Championship Test against Argentina, it was clear the 33-year-old flanker was no longer a force at international level.

Meyer brought Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger back into the squad, and both would prove themselves over the course of the 2014 season. Matfield’s presence lent Meyer’s Boks a new edge at the lineout, while Burger’s game-shaping influence was patent in the Tests against Australia, New Zealand, and England.

While Matfield will be 38 and Burger will be 32 by the time the World Cup commences, both have shown through their performances that they deserve a place in the match-day squad. The public perception is that Meyer has brought these players back because of their past deeds. The reality, as we saw in those Tests, is somewhat different.

Another perception of Meyer that has been prominent since his first Test in charge is that he doesn’t back the younger players, and that he is wary of blooding rising stars. One only needs to look at how he has managed his team and developed a greater group of players over the past three seasons to see that the perception is flawed.

In Meyer’s first Test at the helm, four players made their international debuts (three in a starting capacity). Over the course of that first season, he blooded 12 players in total. He continued to cast the net wide in 2013 (11 new caps), and again in 2014 (12 new caps).

Consider the quality of player that has come through, and how many have been backed consistently. It’s not as if Meyer has relied solely on a clutch of players who he used to coach at the Bulls, or a handful of other veterans who were part of the great Boks teams of 2007 and 2009.

Perhaps people forget that Eben Etzebeth is just 23 years old. Despite his age, he has started in 31 out of a possible 37 Tests under Meyer. Duane Vermeulen was snubbed by Jake White and Peter de Villiers, but has been entrusted with a leadership role in Meyer’s team. Both these players have been nominated for the World Rugby Player of the Year award. It’s a credit to their individual talent and hard work, but one shouldn’t ignore the fact that the coach has allowed them room to grow into the giants they are today.

The list of ‘new’ players continues. A then 21-year-old Marcell Coetzee was backed to start at openside flank in the Boks’ first series under Meyer in 2012. A then 20-year-old Johan Goosen started at flyhalf against the Wallabies and All Blacks in the home leg of the 2012 Rugby Championship. Fullback Willie le Roux first came into the mix in early 2013 and has gone on to start in 23 of his 25 Tests.

Last year was always going to be a more important year for Meyer in terms of results and player management. His predecessors had struggled in the third year of their tenures (White’s Boks won just 42% of their games, while De Villiers’ side won 57%). While it’s true that four losses marked 2014 as Meyer’s least successful season, the victory against the All Blacks in Joburg as well as an overall win percentage of 69% does put things into perspective. Significantly, Meyer continued to increase the pool of players and hand those newer players already in the system (ie, those who debuted in 2012 or later) more and more opportunities.

In fact, if we were to construct a match 23 on the basis of Test starts in the years between 2012 and 2014, it becomes clear just how much has been done in terms of player development over the past three years. Meyer has recognised the need for grizzled veterans, with nine players from the Boks’ golden era (2004 to 2009) featuring most prominently over the past three years. What the numbers also show is that nine of the players who got their first opportunity under Meyer (ie, from 2012 onwards) have gone on to play regularly. You can also add to that number the players Meyer has recalled from the international wilderness, men like Francois Louw and Adriaan Strauss. They have been backed consistently and are among the best players in the world.

One of the biggest success stories over the past three years has been that of Handré Pollard. The 21-year-old flyhalf started his first Test for the Boks in June last year, but what highlighted Meyer’s faith in the player was the fact that he was backed to start in both games against the All Blacks, the No 1 team in the world.

Pollard brings a different skill set to the side and, being on the younger end of the age spectrum, a different energy. Bok captain Jean de Villiers made the point before the Test against Argentina in Pretoria last year: the younger players serve to inspire the veterans with their energy and attitude, while the older players offer these youngsters a sense of security with their experience.

Pollard’s emergence, particularly in the 2014 Rugby Championship, was timely. It was because of such introductions that the Boks didn’t stagnate after that successful 2013 season. They were always expected to reintegrate several more veterans over the course of 2014 (Matfield and Burger would return successfully, Smith lasted for just one Test), so they needed somebody like Pollard to balance the scales.

While the most capped match 23 of the past three seasons is a good indication of who Meyer rates, it is by no means a lineup cast in stone. We’re likely to see a few more experienced players coming in before the 2015 World Cup, like Burger, Du Preez, and if Saru can come to an agreement with the respective parties, Fourie and Frans Steyn.

It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Meyer backing a few more of the players he has brought through since 2012. Lock Pieter-Steph du Toit is expected to recover from injury in time for the World Cup. Centre Damian de Allende only played three Tests in 2014, but is rated highly by the Bok management and proved to be one of the standouts in the early rounds of the 2015 Super Rugby tournament.

Botha retired from international rugby after the Boks’ win against England last year. At the time, the decorated lock cited his ageing body as well as the rise of the younger second rowers as reasons for calling it quits. He said that Etzebeth and Lood de Jager would do South Africa proud at the World Cup.

In March, the 33-year-old Gurthrö Steenkamp announced that he would be focusing on his club career in France. To be fair, Steenkamp has not been particularly effective at Test level in recent years. It is the right time to stand aside and allow a promising young prop such as Trevor Nyakane the opportunity to shine on the big stage.

The data of the past three seasons shows that Meyer has attempted to strike the right balance between youth and experience. And now, just a few months out from the 2015 World Cup, the Boks are in a strong position to take the right mix of players to England.

It’s a myth that Meyer is obsessed with older players, just like it’s a myth that predominantly older teams win World Cups. The England side that triumphed in the 2003 final boasted an average age of 28. The winners of the next two World Cup finals witnessed similar averages, with South Africa at 26, and New Zealand at 28.

The younger players in the Bok group have won big matches away from home. The veterans in that side have proved they’re still good enough. Those older players who have come to the realisation that their best days on the Test stage are behind them – Botha, Smith, and Steenkamp – have stepped aside.

Meyer may be forced to make one or two tough decisions before he names his World Cup squad in August. However, it should encourage South African rugby supporters to know that enough has been done over the past three seasons to ensure the Boks will field a potent mix at the global tournament.

TOTAL: 65 players in 37 Tests between 2012 and 2014
NEW CAPS: 12 in 2012, 11 in 2013, and 12 in 2014

(Based on starts between 2012 and 2014)

15. Willie le Roux (23 starts)
14. JP Pietersen (14)
13. JJ Engelbrecht (9)
12. Jean de Villiers (c, 34)
11. Bryan Habana (32)
10. Morné Steyn (21)
9. Ruan Pienaar (18)
8. Duane Vermeulen (29)
7. Willem Alberts (23)
6. Francois Louw (23)
5. Juandré Kruger (13)
4. Eben Etzebeth (31)
3. Jannie du Plessis (32)
2. Adriaan Strauss (20)
1. Tendai Mtawarira (29)
16. Bismarck du Plessis (19)
17. Trevor Nyakane (1 – Gurthrö Steenkamp has 5, but recently retired from Test rugby)
18. Coenie Oosthuizen (4)
19. Victor Matfield (11)
20. Marcell Coetzee (17)
21. Francois Hougaard (15)*
22. Handré Pollard (7)**
23 Zane Kirchner (14)
*While this number includes Hougaard's starts on the wing, he still has the second most starts as a scrumhalf
**While utility back Pat Lambie has started more Tests than Pollard, the latter has started more games at flyhalf

– This article first appeared in the May issue of Sport Monthly magazine

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Jon Cardinelli