South Africa is waiting in anticipation. It's the dawn of a new era for the country of Boerewors, Biltong and Potjiekos. Will the new Springbok-staff take the performance of the Bokke to the next level? Only time will tell, but the future looks bright for the rainbow nation.
It was back in 2007 when SARU appointed a new head coach to take over from Jake White. The then 50-year old former scrum-half had big shoes to fill, and in the end it turned out to be too much. Unlike other coaches, Snor (Moustache), as he is called by some, relied on the very basics that won the World Cup under Jake White. It was a controversial decision to appoint this man to be coach of the national team, but he did have some success. In 2009 the Springboks won the Tri-Nations and the Lions series, but over a period of 4 years there was mainly disappointment. Youngsters didn't always get a chance and guys like Ricky Januarie, John Smit, Bryan Habana, Wynand Olivier, and Zane Kirchner were a shoo-in, time and time again, despite poor performances by all. There was no structure. When the Springboks were eliminated by Australia in last years World Cup, the whole country was shocked, yet relieved at the same time. Relieved that it was over; 4 years with a poor coach, who was better known for his controversial comments than his performances as a head coach.
South Africans are turning the page, and the new coach is Heyneke Meyer. He is a coach who has proven to be able to build a team and achieve success. He won 6 prizes as a head coach of the Bulls franchise between 2001 and 2007, including the 2007 Super 14 title, beating the Sharks in the final. With Meyer being the new coach, youngsters stand a chance to show what they can do. In his first month as a head coach, he made some surprising selections. Not surprising because of the quality of the players, but because of the change from the Snor era. Young guns like Marcell Coetzee and Eben Etzebeth have been called up and named in the starting lineup already. The question is not if these youngsters can make the team long-term, the question is how many others will be able to do so. With guys like Anton Bresler (Sharks lock), Jaco Taute (Lions fullback), Robert Ebersohn (Cheetahs center) and CJ Stander (Bulls flanker) there's a couple of more guys who are close to being selected for the national team. If the Super Rugby season teaches us something, it's the fact that young guys get the chance to play the very best Australia and New Zealand have to offer. It gives them the opportunity to show what they are capable of and Meyer showed with his first squad that everybody has a chance to be part of the Springbok-future.
The selection of the likes of Etzebeth and Coetzee shows a change in direction as well. Heyneke Meyer declared he wants to stick to the typical Bok-style for now, but with these young guys growing up under the new laws, things are about to change. Marcell Coetzee is a more all-round flanker than his predecessors. Schalk Burger and Heinrich Brussow are more limited in their abilities, which doesn't give the team many different options. The same can be said for Patrick Lambie, who has shown class as . Heyneke Meyer intends to use him as such, instead of putting him at fullback. Patrick Lambie is another example of a complete player. Not only is his kicking game up to the desired level, he knows how to run with the ball in hand and has great vision. I can go on and on about these talents, but it's been obvious that Hougaard and Lambie have the ability to bring the level of play to a new level in South Africa. In the near future no longer will we have to settle for static backline players like Habana, Kirchner, and Morne Steyn but we will have a team that is capable of playing several styles of rugby again.
Another piece of brilliance by Meyer is the effort to bring Francois Steyn back to South Africa. Steyn has played in France for the past three years, and was very impressive in the recent World Cup. His return to the Sharks gives Meyer more depth in midfield. Steyn moving back to the Sharks is a good move for his personal development as well. The Sharks have been a team that struggle with having quality centers and he can bring that to the team. With guys like Steyn, Jean de Villiers, and Bismarck du Plessis, the experience in the squad gives youngsters like Lambie, Hougaard, Coetzee, and Etzebeth the chance to learn from the best this country has to offer, instead of relying upon washed up veterans as was seen over the past four years.
To give the credits only to Meyer would be unfair. The depth that South Africa has, is due to the chances youngsters get to play club rugby at the highest level. The South African teams have always suffered from players moving to other leagues. Just looking at some of the South Africans playing in overseas gives you an idea. Guys like Brian Mujati, Joe van Niekerk, BJ Botha, Johann Muller, Gurthro Steenkamp, Brent Russell, Jaque Fourie, Fourie du Preez, Gerhard Mostert, and Brad Barritt would be possible starters for the Springboks if they would still play in South Africa. Instead, the local coaches had to find suitable replacements time and time again, and the result is that the young players of today got their chance. When Ruan Pienaar left the Sharks, Patrick Lambie got his chance. When Fourie du Preez left the Bulls, Francois Hougaard moved up to replace him. On the one hand it was inevitable, but to me, we have the club coaches to thank for the development of our youngsters. They show trust and confidence to give a 20-year old a chance to prove himself, which results in this group of fantastic players.
Heyneke Meyer said he wants to perform against England, win the series and build towards the 2015 World Cup, but it looks to me that building towards 2015 and performing go hand-in-hand when you have Marcell Coetzee, Eben Etzebeth, Patrick Lambie, and Francois Hougaard, among many other talented players, already involved.
It's still early and Meyer's first match as a head coach is only this weekend, but the way things look now, it's going to be a bright future for the Springboks, the dawn of a new era indeed!
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