The five key features of the Springboks' 2014 season, according to RYAN VREDE.
The Springboks can't yet be legitimately compared to the All Blacks
Pat Lambie's penalty won the Test between these two sides at Ellis Park this year, but that victory simply served to distort the picture – one in which the All Blacks are by some way still the best side in the world. They underlined this on their year–end tour once more, getting victories in match situations the Springboks lost from. Their ability to score at critical times in the contest or negotiate long periods of defensive pressure sets them apart. This, together with the superior skills of the collective, their understanding and execution of a tailored game plan and the experience in their ranks differentiates them from the Springboks and the rest of the chasing pack. The Ellis Park result was memorable for the manner in which the Springboks refused to be beaten. But the rhetoric that they are as good or better than the Blacks was exposed as deeply flawed this year, particularly on the end-of-year tour.
Heyneke Meyer needs to back his tactical beliefs
I watched in horror for most of this season as Meyer bowed to public pressure to play more expansively. The rugby public's lack of understanding in what he was trying to achieve tactically through a territory-based approach that relied heavily on tactical kicking as at the heart of the criticism. Poor execution of a tactic doesn't make the tactic poor, and Meyer should have worked at fine-tuning that execution instead of all but throwing it away. Most recently, it cost him against Ireland, who were simply patient on defence and dined on isolated runners at the breakdown. Meyer must back his perceived conservative methods despite ill-informed criticism. It's the strategy that will give the team the best chance of winning regularly and at the World Cup.
And speaking of the World Cup…
Let us lose our obsession with it, please. When Meyer started his tenure he stressed the importance of not focusing on a four-yearly event but instead building the type of consistency that is the hallmark of the benchmark All Blacks. Recently he has spoken with ever-growing frequency about the relevance of results now to a tournament that starts in September next year. I agree that not all of what happens now is irrelevant, and agree with Meyer's post-match offering on Saturday that the tour clarified who had the goods to make the World Cup squad and who doesn't. However, the tournament appears to be all consuming, which isn't a healthy situation. Remember, the Springboks of 2007 went into the World Cup playing like they'd be lucky to make it out of the pool phase, yet emerged as champions, having found their stride in the most irrepressible way. What happens before the tournament, win or lose, is hardly indicative of how they'll fare in the tournament itself. The Tests that remain before the showpiece tournament must be treated with the respect they command. Certainly, groove your game plan, find your best combinations, weed out the players who don't have the mettle. But can we please dial back the World Cup-induced hysteria?
The Boks have all their bases covered at flyhalf
I'd suggest there hasn't been a time in Springbok history that the flyhalf stocks have been as healthy as they are at present. Handré Pollard emerged as a pivot of immense potential, while Pat Lambie has matured into a fine international 10. The latter has been more impressive, though, particularly in Europe, with Pollard's inexperience at Test level exposed at critical times. The youngster will improve in 2015 and likely to develop into a world-class flyhalf capable of influencing results regularly. Meyer also has the comfort of Morné Steyn in his squad. I've written often this year that he would still be my first-choice pick for the Springboks, but in the context of where they've ventured to tactically, he wasn't the right fit. However, in a knockout environment where a couple of penalties could decide whether you're on a plane home or on to the next round, Steyn remains the man I'd bank on.
Super Rugby was and will be the Boks' most devastating opponent
In a results-driven environment, Super Rugby coaches won't give a flying fig about the national interests. The Sharks will want to challenge for the title once more, the Bulls will want to arrest their slide into mediocrity, the Lions won't want to finish bottom, the Cheetahs need the Boks they have left to make up for those they've lost to the Bulls and others, and Allister Coetzee has a job to preserve at the Stormers. The Springboks will get played into the ground and Meyer can only hope his key players make it through the madness.
Photo: Steve Hagg/Gallo Images