The Springboks got what they needed rather than what they wanted from the two toughest Tests of the European tour, writes JON CARDINELLI in Padova.
‘We needed this,’ a team insider told me after the Boks’ shock 29-15 defeat to Ireland. This statement contrasted those made by the head coach and captain at every press conference. Heyneke Meyer and Jean de Villiers said the Boks wanted to win all four Tests on this tour to Europe. Ultimately, they wanted to head into the 2015 World Cup with a 100% record in northern hemisphere conditions.
And yet, as I was told on that bleak night in Dublin, perhaps the best thing for the Boks was to lose. The result certainly fired them up for the next clash against England at Twickenham, and they will know that defeat is possible at next year’s World Cup.
Meyer’s side has lost one out of eight in northern hemisphere conditions, but that one defeat will eradicate all complacency in future contests. Thanks to the blowout in Dublin, we should never again witness such a lacklustre performance from this particular side.
The Boks wanted to win in Dublin and London, but they needed to lose one of those Tests to be brought back to earth. Too much confidence was taken from that win against the All Blacks at Ellis Park last month. The Boks beat the No 1 Test side in the world, but they made the mistake of believing they had achieved something special. They also made the crucial error of assuming the match against Ireland would not demand as much of their physicality and resolve.
Meyer will be grateful that the match they did lose was in Dublin rather than London. The Boks have extended their fantastic unbeaten streak (12) against England, but it’s more significant that they’ve racked up their fifth consecutive victory at Twickenham. This is the venue that will host the World Cup semi-finals and final, and if the Boks were to feature in those play-offs, they will be lifted by their record at the ground.
That recent defeat to Ireland provided perspective. The Boks realised one of their biggest goals for the season when they beat the All Blacks at Ellis Park. It was the first win against New Zealand for Meyer’s side, and the first for South Africa since 2011. However, there was no reason for the Boks to believe they were suddenly the finished article.
The Rugby Championship log confirms that the Boks are not where they need to be. Meyer has developed this team into a unit that can beat the All Blacks and potentially win the World Cup, but the simple fact is they have not won a Rugby Championship in three seasons of trying. Next year’s tournament will be truncated, and as we’ve seen in the past, a Rugby Championship crown counts for nothing and is no indicator of form in a World Cup year.
Meyer said after the loss to Ireland that this tour to Europe was not only about results, but about answering some nagging questions. Nobody was happier than the Bok coach when South Africa buried their New Zealand bogey on 4 October, but Meyer has always been honest about where this team stands, not only in relation to the All Blacks, but in terms of his own goals and standards.
Meyer has repeatedly told the media that this Bok side is not good enough in wet conditions, and that he is concerned about the depth of the side in key positions. This tour has already provided a few answers, while in some instances only questions remain.
Schalk Burger showed at Twickenham why the Boks need a hard-hitting player in that blindside position. Much has been made about Cobus Reinach’s performance against England, but the Boks will welcome back Fourie du Preez as soon as the scrumhalf is fit. Some of the players who have featured these past two weeks won’t be in the 2015 World Cup squad.
The Boks could finish the 2014 season with a 10 from 13 win record. Wins against Italy in Padova and a weakened Wales in Cardiff are expected. An overall win percentage of 77% will be viewed as good, especially since the record includes a rare All Blacks scalp.
However, what the Boks must remember is they didn’t win the Rugby Championship in 2014, and they aren’t unbeatable in northern hemisphere conditions. They won’t travel to the World Cup next year as favourites, and having failed to win the Rugby Championship and also against Ireland in Dublin, they won’t head into that tournament with a complacent attitude.
It’s vital that they take the lessons learned this past season, and especially over the past two weeks, to heart.
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