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After watching the Springboks getting agonisingly close to beating both Australia and New Zealand, the disappointment and anger have worn off. Clear thoughts are slowly emerging from the red mist of frustration and disappointment as yet more inconsistent performances from the Springboks were evident.
Heyeneke Meyer has some severe challenges on his plate and some decisions and solutions that need to be made and found prior to the start of the World Cup.
His most important challenge will be to find 23 players able to win him a World Cup, not 31 but 23, as that is how I believe he might stand a realistic – but very small – chance of taking William Webb Ellis home.
Meyer does not have the luxury of going into this World Cup with his mind set on having 31 players capable of winning the World Cup, his focus must be on a matchday 23 and hope that injuries do not play a big part in the World Cup.
Why 23 players? Because continuity now is key, Meyer has one match against Argentina, then four pool matches before he steps into the cauldron of knockout rugby.
The additional 8 players should serve merely as back up in the case of injuries, other than that, he must select his 15 starters and 8 replacements.
Those starters should be in my view an easy decision to make.
Bismarck du Plessis
Jannie du Plessis
Lood de Jager
Damian de Allende
Willie le Roux
Jannie du Plessis may not be anyone’s favourite, he certainly isn’t mine, but this front row has proven over the past two matches that they are still the best front row in South Africa. There may be many contenders for the tight head position, but right now, Jannie is still first choice.
The young locking pair of Etzebeth and de Jager may not have the experience of a Matfield and Botha, or indeed any other locking combination in world rugby, but right now, on form and work ethic, there is no better current locking pair available.
The back row of Burger, Louw and Vermeulen has balance, has the ability to pilfer and it has grunt, a link man in Burger, and leadership.
Ruan Pienaar again is not my favourite, however the risk to include any other half back in South Africa is simply too great, Fourie du Preez may be Meyer’s first choice, but there is no form, no consistency that can justify him starting.
Handre Pollard simply must be the first choice fly half, yes he does not have a lot of experience, but if they are good enough they are old enough.
Damien de Allende and Jesse Kriel have it over the experience of Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie, they have more pace and skill, more creativity and their form can simply not be denied. Any day a pair of youngsters can put one over Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith is a beautiful day, and regardless of their lack of experience – and yes, their defence needs some work – Meyer cannot for one moment think that an out of form and unfit Jaque Fourie, and a 100+ cap player coming back from a serious injury can outplay these two.
Bryan Habana may not be the Bryan Habana of 2007, neither for that matter is JP Petersen, but for now, there simply is nobody else available, or in good enough form to change Meyer’s selection.
Willie le Roux is the talisman of South African rugby, and just the thought of the amount of space he can get and generate from the Pollard, De Allende and Kriel play is mouth-watering.
Fourie du Preez
Jean de Villiers
The replacement front row has a question mark over who should be the tight head, whether it will be Koch or Malherbe is debatable, both can scrummage, both has ability in general play, the likely hood is Malherbe, but my choice will be Koch.
The reserve lock is a concern, Matfield should not be the one, take him with as the back-up for the back-up lock, will Pieter-Steph du Toit be fit or will Meyer consider Flip van der Merwe who doesn’t seem to be in great form. My surprise selection will be Franco Mostert.
As much as Heinrich Brussow has impressed this past weekend, Marcell Coetzee is a must for his work-rate and the impact he can make.
If you want old heads and experience, then put Fourie du Preez and Jean de Villiers on the bench. Let them calm things down in the last quarter, let their leadership be the calming influence the Springboks seem to lack in the final quarter.
Besides, it is easier for ageing players to perform for twenty minutes at their peak than sixty minutes.
Patrick Lambie has shown his mettle a number of times coming on as a sub, be it at fly half, fullback or having to kick the final minute penalties. He is currently the best utility back in South Africa.
That takes care of selections, the next step is to decide the game plan. In my view, the game plan for the Argentina match and pool rounds should be one of freedom, attack, attack and attack.
Allow the combinations to gel, allow these players to form cohesion and an understanding between them, allow them to build trust in their combinations – and the best way to achieve that is freedom of expression.
The reality is South Africa should comfortably beat Argentina, Samoa, Scotland, Japan and the USA. Meyer should therefore not put too much thought into these five matches, just allow the combinations the time and freedom to build continuity and momentum.
Above all, allow them to build confidence and belief, in the meantime, focus on their defensive organisation and communication in defence.
Do the Springboks lack fitness? I am not so sure, if it is an issue work on it, but more importantly work on their mental approach, it is just possible they expend all their adrenaline too early due to the fact that they do not have the necessary tools to manage their energy levels and ‘hype’.
A hyped up athlete will run himself into the ground in the first 1200 metres and have nothing left in the tank for the all important last lap.
Self management is key.
Finally, the one area that is a major stumbling block for the Springboks is the manner they react when under pressure. The attitude of “I will do this myself” where all expansive play goes out the window and the forwards believe they will bash through a brick wall is antiquated and futile.
Hence the building of trust, confidence and belief in each other will be the key to unlock a final quarter where the Boks can close out matches, whether under pressure or not.
Trust, confidence and belief in each other will allow for team synergy, calm heads and better option taking.
Easy as pie, don’t you think?
Now let’s pray Meyer reads this and actually agrees.