It’s June, and as the season turns, we are comforted by the familiar rituals of winter. Favourite old jerseys are retrieved from the depths of wardrobes, ready to do duty as the days grow colder. Fireplaces, long idle, are cleaned and readied in preparation for cozy evenings with friends and family. And across the nation, rugby fans have a cadenza as the first Springbok squad of the year is announced.
It’s almost a tradition; every year we bemoan the absence of our favourites and the inclusion of has-beens and never-weres. But the team announced on Saturday night, much like an ugly utilitarian sweater I unpacked last week, is a particular doozy. It has elicited such a strong response, for so many different reasons (the team, not my sweater) that I felt the whole palaver deserved a closer look. Rarely does the South African rugby fan embark on a voyage of logic and common sense, but it’s time to put your big boy pants on and have a big boy conversation about the realities of life.
The first issue to address is the most silly one, and that is the question of provincialism. Frankly, if you believe that a coach would actively exclude players from other regions because he doesn’t like them then you are an idiot. Or you shouldn’t be reading rugby blogs during school hours. It works like this: Heyneke Meyer was instrumental in shaping the Bulls’ particular playing style, and in recruiting their players, so when he has the opportunity to apply his philosophy on the international stage, where do you think he goes to find the type of personnel he needs? Especially with only one week to prepare for a test match. A test match. I find it heartening that Meyer cherishes victory so much that he will not even consider throwing a group of disparate players together for seven days and cross his fingers hoping they’ll win. And we might well see the makeup of the team change as time goes by. According to Meyer, even the captain will be temporary. He sees the England series as a strange and extraordinary set of circumstances, necessitating short-term thinking.If that means he hits the ground running with a cohesive core group and smashes the Poms then more power to him.
The man clearly has a killer instinct, and he doesn’t care about your hurt feelings.
And we must be careful where we focus our criticism. The players themselves are not to be singled out – they didn’t pick themselves. The band of men who’ll do battle for us on Saturday deserve our unquestioned support. But more importantly, we can’t necessarily disagree with Meyer for choosing who he did. We may not like his decisions, but they are his decisions, and whether they are “wrong” or not is subjective.
Permit me a metaphor: If a chef has been employed to launch a restaurant and he decides that French cuisine will succeed, but you think Mexican food is better, it would be ludicrous for you to criticise him for not having nachos on the menu. It’s a French restaurant!
A good example is the omission of Heinrich Brussouw. It came as a shock and it seems crazy, but its only crazy when viewed through the way you understand rugby and the way you want the Springboks to play. Regarding Brussouw, Meyer says that rugby has changed and that hookers now find themselves in better positions to steal ball. Ok, fine. With Matfield gone does Meyer want more height in the lineout? Maybe. At this stage of the Super 15 the 1.91m Marcell Coetzee has made more tackles than Heinrich Brussouw and the most of any player in the competition. Is that important for Heyneke Meyer’s blueprint? Probably. So we must evaluate his choices in light of what he believes. His job is not to assemble the Super Rugby All-Stars. His job is not to reward anybody. His job is not to bring together the country’s favourite sons. His job is not to fulfil your idea of how the Springboks should play. It’s the Heyneke Meyer Show, and it’s his head on the block, so he will pick players who fit his understanding of the game. So if you were truly privy to Heyneke’s intentions, you might hail this team as perfect in every way.
It doesn’t make sense to criticise his choice of players, but perhaps we have a more legitimate grumble with the game plan that has necessitated the choice of those players in the first place. Much has been said about how Meyer’s Springboks will play simple, direct, power rugby, and Gio Aplon and Juan de Jongh’s omissions hurt the most in this regard – it tells us what’s on the menu from now on. Nick Mallett called it long before the squad was announced, saying that Meyer’s Boks would be “risk averse”. But this brings us to the age-old question: If you had a choice between A) winning more often or B) playing more entertaining rugby, what would you choose?
The answer you’re looking for, I believe, lies in the wreckage of the 2011 World Cup quarter-final defeat against Australia. You may say that we were unlucky to lose that day. Heyneke Meyer will tell you that luck should never have anything to do with it. I know what sheepish Stormers fans have been saying in answer to that question. I know what exasperated Lions fans and Blues fans would say. When you get up on a cold morning in July to watch the Boks face the haka, what do you want to happen?
So will the Boks be playing Bulls rugby? Yes they will, with a few tweaks here and there says Meyer. Is this such a bad thing? I don’t think it’s a reason to cry into our beer. The irony of Aplon and De Jongh’s axing, as painful as it is, is that they play in a team that is at times mind-numbingly boring to watch. So to necessarily equate exciting players with exciting rugby is misguided. Since Meyer’s arrival at Loftus the Bulls have been far and away South Africa’s top try scoring franchise in Super rugby and are usually amongst the top try scoring teams in the competition. To me, the accusations of provincialism should really be levelled at those who moan that there are too many Bulls in the team (and I say this as a life-long Cheetahs fan). It’s lazy thinking, maybe a vestige of years gone by, to say that the Bulls are boring.
The last thing that struck me as I read the names on the team sheet is a feeling of “specificity”. What I mean by this is that it can’t often be said that we get such a clear idea of what a coach plans to do based on how he has structured his squad. Heyneke Meyer’s team reveals to us his personality and his attitude towards test match rugby. When you look at the names on the list, you get the feeling that there is nothing extraneous about it – no experiments, no “what-ifs”, nothing vague, no name that doesn’t have a very specific reason for being there. You may not like the squad, but you must concede that it has been ruthlessly put together with a very dark purpose in mind. To me it is refreshing to see something so polished and honed straight out of the gate. It tells us that we are dealing with a clear, focussed thinker.
Meyer has been judged and found wanting quicker than any Springbok coach in history. He has virtually fallen from grace before a ball has been kicked, so South Africa’s notoriously “passionate” (let’s be kind) rugby fans have outdone themselves on this count. The open-minded amongst us will embrace the dawning of a new era under a smart and passionate coach and give the Boks all the support they deserve. Even the haters must concede that he deserves time to get to where he wants to go before we weigh his tenure. This cannot happen after the first game on Saturday, nor should it occur at the culmination of the England series or even after the end-of-year tour to the north. Rather, let us reconvene next winter, after we’ve gathered around our televisions to watch the announcement of the class of 2013. We’ll not only be a little wiser about who Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks really are, but hopefully also a little wiser about the game in general.