Heyneke Meyer has transformed the Springboks into a team that can beat the All Blacks and win the 2015 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The All Blacks remain the best team on the planet, and were the deserved winners of this year’s Rugby Championship. One bad performance and one loss hasn’t altered their status as the leaders of world rugby.
That said, it’s significant that the Boks will now travel to the World Cup with the conviction rather than the hope that they too can lift the Webb Ellis Cup. They remain the No 2 side in the world, but they now know that they can beat No 1. It’s the sort of knowledge that will make all the difference should they meet the All Blacks during the knockout stages of the World Cup.
While Meyer is widely acknowledged as one of the sharpest minds in the game, it’s been evident over the past two seasons that he has the ability to instil a burning belief in his charges. The culture in that Bok set-up is strong, and it’s this band of brothers mentality that has allowed the team to grind out some important wins.
None have been bigger or more significant than the result at Ellis Park this past Saturday. In the buildup, every player and coach spoke of the desperation to beat New Zealand. It was not simply a matter of finishing their 2014 Rugby Championship campaign on a high or saving face, it was about making a statement and taking some momentum into next year’s World Cup.
Meyer’s Boks have now beaten every side on the planet. They may have no Rugby Championship titles to show for their efforts, and the one from six record against the All Blacks is sobering. However, this team has improved since coming together in early 2012, and we will see the very best of the Boks at the 2015 World Cup.
I didn’t believe the Boks could beat the All Blacks this past Saturday, as I felt they were missing too many first-choice players. They went into that clash without Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Francois Louw, and Willem Alberts. Those are not only key players in the context of the Boks’ game plan, but some of the best players in the game.
And yet, the second- and third-choice players showed their strength and their steel at Ellis Park to claim that elusive All Blacks scalp. It was a testament to the quality in depth that Meyer has taken three seasons to develop.
Pat Lambie kicked the winning penalty, while other second-stringers like Marcell Coetzee produced world-class performances over the course of the contest. As Meyer said afterwards, the 31-man squad that travels to the 2015 World Cup will be a strong one. It’s possible that some very skilled and experienced players won’t make the cut.
The myths about Meyer have tumbled as the Rugby Championship has progressed. Some said he was conservative in his approach and mindset, but the breathtaking attacking performances by the Boks at Newlands and Ellis Park had everybody including the All Blacks tipping their hats.
Some said he didn’t have the guts to back the youngsters, but then he took the biggest gamble of all in backing the 20-year-old Handré Pollard to start at No 10.
The Boks did not win the Rugby Championship, but there have been enough positives to come out of the campaign to declare it a qualified success. While I’m not suggesting that the Boks should be content with second place, what they’ve produced, individually and as a collective, over the past two months is worth shouting about.
Pollard is worth shouting about, but he would never have received an opportunity had Meyer not taken a chance.
The youngster, playing in only his first season of professional rugby, started both Tests against Argentina, and was then backed to start against the All Blacks in New Zealand. Meyer’s faith in the raw yet gifted flyhalf never wavered, and that faith was repaid three times over when Pollard produced one of the best attacking performances by a South African flyhalf at Ellis Park.
As Steve Hansen said afterwards, the All Blacks and the Boks are competing at a different level to the rest of the rugby nations. Hansen also said that Meyer deserves every plaudit for the manner in which he’s developed this Bok group. The All Blacks coach suggested that any South African who still believes that Meyer is not the right man for the job needs to get their head read.
The recent performances as well as the result against the All Blacks confirm that Meyer's Boks are on the right track. They will be even stronger when those key players return, and they will know that they can beat the All Blacks in a big World Cup play-off.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images