Heyneke Meyer is ending his first year in charge of the Springboks the way it began – with a Test against England.Back in June, Meyer’s tenure started with a 22-17 win over England at King’s Park, but on Saturday the match will be at the more daunting venue of Twickenham, London.
And the danger is that progression from that first Test in Durban to the last of 12 fixtures in 2012 may not be evident.
The Springboks’ play is still characterised by halves of hugely differing quality – they were held to 6-6 in the first half in Durban – and the backline is still miles behind the pack in terms of match-winning contribution.
South Africa scored two tries against England in their first meeting this year, but such was their forward dominance in the second half that most people felt they should have scored more.
And England, as they showed in snatching a draw against the Springboks in the final match of that series, are also a team that is developing and their coach, Stuart Lancaster, is certain they can end a 10-game winless streak against South Africa.
Twickenham is something of a fortress for them as well and Springbok fans can expect the toughest challenge of their three tour matches this weekend.
In terms of personnel, there are also areas where the team is no more settled than they were back in June.
The debate is still open over who should be fly half going forward. Morne Steyn played in Durban, scored a try but missed both conversions and a penalty, and has now disappeared entirely from the match-day 23.
Johan Goosen has started but then suffered a season-ending injury, while Pat Lambie has not yet set the world alight during his two starts against Ireland and Scotland.
Meyer has been making encouraging noises about wanting Lambie to open up more this weekend, and hopefully another great young talent, Elton Jantjies, will get a chance later in the game.
Francois Hougaard was the starting scrumhalf against England in Durban, but is now on the wing. He was shifted there in the second half as he failed to convert the forward dominance into territorial advantage or really spark his backline, and since then Meyer has relied on Ruan Pienaar in the number nine jersey.
Pienaar has been competent on the heavier fields of the United Kingdom, but whether he has the pace or snappy delivery that is required against teams like New Zealand and Australia remains in doubt.
Hougaard, for his part, showed amazing maturity this week by saying he did not want to be considered on the wing next year, but instead wanted to become a specialist scrumhalf and would be putting in the work required to achieve that.
“My preferred position is definitely scrumhalf and I do think that playing wing as much as I have been has hurt my play as a scrumhalf. I have made it known to the coaches at the Bulls that scrumhalf is where I want to specialise from now on. I will only develop as a scrumhalf if I play there regularly. What I need is a full pre-season where I work only as a scrumhalf, and then to play only as a scrumhalf when the season starts.
That will get me thinking like a scrumhalf.
“There are a lot of technical aspects of scrumhalf that require a heck of a lot of hard work and preparation, and I just haven’t been able to put in the time that is needed as I have been playing so much on the wing.
Playing 10 minutes or so as a scrumhalf later in the game after playing the first part as a wing is not going to help me develop into the player I want to be,” Hougaard said this week.
Other questions that still need resolving as the Springboks head into their last match of the year are:
Where is Jaco Taute’s best position?
Will the game plan allow the likes of JP Pietersen and Juan de Jongh to showcase their brilliant attacking skills?
Is there a viable, trustworthy alternative for the admirable Jannie du Plessis at tighthead prop?
Who is going to grab the number five jersey and make it his own with consistent performances?
As for how Saturday’s Test will probably unfold, up-and-unders and kicking for territory are probably the pet hate of many Springbok fans right now, but there is an even slimmer chance of the boot not dominating this weekend because Lancaster has already stressed the importance of the tactic to his team.
The changes he has made to the side that lost last weekend against Australia indicate he wants half-backs Ben Youngs and Toby Flood working in tandem with the outside backs, having recalled Mike Brown, who lacks pace but is good in the air and has a strong left boot, on the left wing.
While Lancaster has also tried to beef up his pack, the Springboks go into the Test knowing that their forward unit has seldom been outplayed this year. Much as they did against Scotland last weekend, it will be up to them to lay a solid foundation, from where the tourists can kick England back into their territory and then capitalise.
The kicking will only be as effective as the chasing, however, and this time it can only be hoped that the backs are able to seize the moment and score tries when the opportunity arises.
Until now, the Springboks’ backline has been largely sterile, but perhaps the impending festive season and Meyer’s encouraging words to Lambie will prompt a spirit of adventure if not largesse.
It may be five-to-midnight in terms of the Springboks’ year, but an 80-minute performance in which both forwards and backs contribute equally is better arriving now than never. Hopefully Santa Meyer and his Springbok elves will make the wait as worthwhile as the Night Before Christmas usually is.
* Cyprus successfully maintained their winning streak as they beat Austria 54-20 in their Second Division Fira Championship match in Vienna last weekend. The strong Austrian side put up a stiffer challenge than the score line might suggest, but another brilliant performance by the Moufflons netted them their 16th successive win, just two off equalling Lithuania’s world record of 18.
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.