The Springboks, under pressure from the public, have ventured down a tactical black hole that sees them become irrelevant if not remedied, writes RYAN VREDE.
In Test rugby you win using a method that suits the players at your disposal, not employing one that appeases a rugby fraternity wanting little more than to be entertained. When last I checked, winning was pretty entertaining. The Springboks won all but two matches in 2013 off the back of a pragmatic approach that relied on territory gained through tactical kicking and pressure defence. In 2014 they've already lost thrice and will do again at Twickenham on Saturday if they don't abandon the senseless expansive approach that has been a painful feature of their play this year.
They beat the All Blacks using this method, which fuelled belief in it to no end. I celebrated as vociferously as the next South African at the time, but understood that tactically the result was achieved because of a dialing back of an all-out ball-in-hand approach, as was the case a week earlier at Newlands against Australia. It bears remembering that Meyer's side of 2013 scored more tries on average than the All Blacks and they played a brand of rugby that was to become vilified.
On a cold Dublin night the Springboks tried to warm our hearts by seeking to run the Six Nations champions off their feet. They succeeded only in losing their unbeaten record in Europe under Heyneke Meyer, thanks in large part to their refusal to employ a territory-based approach or to keep the ball among the heavies through multiple phases, asking Ireland to match them in these two critical departments. Instead Ireland, astutely coached on the evening, isolated Springbok runners in the wider channels and regularly turned over possession. The tourists never built momentum and were always chasing the game, their desperation deepening and play becoming more expansive in search of victory.
There was none of the composure that marked their previous visit to the Aviva Stadium in 2012. That squad was vastly inferior to this one but undoubtedly better coached and ground out an ugly win against a determined opponent. But it appears ugly won't do for Meyer anymore. Having had a long and close professional relationship with him, I know that he was very aware of widespread criticism of his game plan in the first two years of his reign. He now appears to have bowed to the public pressure to play beautifully.
So he has performed some plastic surgery to the game plan, but it's a botched job in which he has inadvertently created something horrendous, something boasting neither balance nor symmetry. It appeals only to those with a warped concept of what is beautiful and attractive. It's a porn star with up-sized breasts, inflated lips, cheap hair extensions and a botox-filled face. It should and can be Eva Mendez – just the right balance between solid wife material and sexy seductress.
Part of Meyer's problem is that he has acquired a ballistic missile in Handré Pollard. Knowing when to engage his destructive potential is the key to Pollard's potency. At present it appears the kid has an inflexible directive to attack the gainline or seek to create for others for the majority of the time he touches the ball. However, just because you have a ballistic missile doesn't mean you have to exploit the limit of its capacity. There's something to be said for subtly, a quality the Springboks desperately lack at present.
I laughed at those who had called for the Springboks to play more expansively and then criticised them mercilessly on Saturday for losing while trying to play in that fashion. The chief culprits are some of SuperSport's commentators and analysts. These men, as key opinion shapers in South African rugby, have for some time been peddling the rhetoric that the Springboks would be better off running the ball on most occasions and weaving in an element of entertainment to their play in the process. Their standing in South Africa means their views are accepted as gospel, and they have contributed significantly to the miseducation of the nation. Certainly there has to be a balance, but you have to earn the right to play wide through line-depleting phase play or a strong contest at the breakdown that would allow you to turnover ball and attack an unset defensive line. The Springboks never earned that right in Dublin.
If they play this way against England they will lose. If they further refuse to change they will become irrelevant in the discussion of the world's best team and certainly an afterthought as potential World Cup winners.
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