The current approach of the Springbok team is not going to see the national side develop into a consistent world beating unit. We will be good at times, but not soon and not for an extended period.
The Bok team under Heyneke Meyer has not impressed me because it fails to promote freedom and diversity and recognise those as strengthening qualities. Before you start thinking I’m referring to transformation - I’m not. Not now. That conversation is for another day.
Last year I had the pleasure of watching the Springboks at the Rugby World Cup. It did not turn out the way South Africans hoped it would and quite frankly it was because of the team’s failure to react and adapt to a poor display of refereeing.
On that day, Pat Lambie should’ve been moved to fly half. Gio Aplon should’ve come in at 15. Why? Well, the Boks were dominating the game and Lambie and Aplon would have exploited opportunities. As you all know, the Boks didn’t take advantage and lost to the Wallabies, despite clearly being the better side. Now that’s just my opinion and it’s also just one example to help make my point. Believe me, there are more example where I felt Peter de Villiers could’ve made braver calls.
My point, in the context of the current Springbok set-up, is that Meyer has so far been far too inflexible with selections and his idea of what South African rugby is about. I don’t think our game can develop if we decide we’re only good at a certain kind of game plan - in this case one that favours brawn over guile.
South Africa develops highly skilled players, some with the kind of natural flair we see New Zealanders and Australians play with. We are often envious of those entertaining displays and some of us have convinced ourselves that it’s not the way we do things, or even further from the truth, that we cannot match those teams in terms of ball skills and ‘think-on-your-feet’ ability.
I’m not saying one way is better than the other, because history will prove us wrong. What I am saying is we need to approach selection with a diversity of views and not just one coach’s philosophy. We must measure individual strengths and tap into the skills offered by all players. Less important is how they fit into a system. It’s the coach’s job to make a team out of the best individuals.
Coaches must be able to recognise players with exceptional talent and then select accordingly. For too long coaches have made selections based on what will work in their systems, instead of adapting strategies to suit players on form or exceptional playmakers. We are and will miss serious talent that way. Also, while the demands of the modern game means only elite athletes reach the top, let’s not confuse that with size.
I like Meyer’s conviction, emotional investment and self-belief. All those attributes make him a very good coach and an outstanding leader. I may be wrong, but it seems those attributes have also convinced him he has the winning recipe and losing, or drawing a match as has been the case, is only possible if the players don’t deliver on the infallible game plan.
The problem with that kind of approach is you need the best players in the right positions all the time. If that’s not possible, as often is the case, how are second string players going to execute a coach’s unbeatable game plan?
The game plan needs to adapt to the players who are available and more importantly to the skills sets of those players. We are more skilled than our current game plan alludes to. We can put teams away if we give the players some freedom. We can have stronger, more effective teams if we allow ourselves to broaden the framework of our selection criteria.
Why can Gio Aplon or Pat Lambie not start for the Boks? Why has Heinrich Brussow been on the fringes? Why does JJ Engelbrecht get onto the bench ahead of Juan de Jongh? One player has more experience, plays alongside the current Bok captain in Super Rugby and has been one of the most effective centres in the past two years. The player I’m referring to is currently not the preferred choice for the Boks. It can’t be right.
Meyer and the Springboks must get all the support the public, administrators, and even critics can muster. That support also means an emotional investment from fans - fans that have every right to question selections and tactics. Yes, it’s Meyer’s ‘head on the block’, but I hope a fear of failure doesn’t exist within the Bok camp. However, the current style of play is not inspiring or very positive.
If we’re winning as Meyer said we would be, then that’s okay, but anything less against teams like England and Argentina leads to many tough questions. The Springboks cannot show up with a simple strategy better suited to teams with less power, speed and skill. The Boks must raise their game and play at a much higher level - or at least strive to do so.
We will not reach the next level and be consistent world beaters if we don’t embrace all aspects of the game in South Africa. The fleet-footed backs with flair – they exist and must be used and celebrated as much as the big physical athletes are. If we don’t, Springbok rugby will still be successful at times, but it will never fulfill its full potential and that should be giving us nightmares.