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Stephen Nell | Columnist Index
Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
Rugby Championship
A step in the right direction
Stephen Nell
October 9, 2012
Try time for South Africa' Bryan Habana, South Africa v Australia, The Rugby Championship, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, South Africa, September 29, 2012
Bryan Habana is showing signs of being back to his best © Getty Images
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It's not often that a Springboks defeat is met with a sober response, but even the most ardent South African supporter will not deny the greatness of the current All Blacks team.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has nevertheless been left with plenty to ponder in the wake of the inaugural Rugby Championship.

Let's get a grip on the problems first:

There is ongoing debate about the merits of the Springboks' playing style, while their defensive structure was badly exposed in the 16-32 defeat to the All Blacks in Soweto. Furthermore, the Boks succeeded with only a shade over 50% of their kicks at goal over the course of the tournament.

The way forward at fly-half is still uncertain. Johan Goosen had a promising game against the Wallabies in Pretoria, but it's too early to judge whether his precocious talent will shine through on the biggest stage. He was injured in the first half of the Soweto clash and replaced with another promising youngster in Elton Jantjies.

Meyer has had to challenge a few of his own beliefs along the Rugby Championship road. It took him all of seven Tests to realise that Morné Steyn had to be dropped. Steyn had been poor in the series against England before a good performance against Argentina at Newlands. But his form was disastrous on the road against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.

The realisation that his loose forward combination needed balance also dawned on Meyer and Francois Louw was mercifully brought in to play to the ball.

Meyer's apparent obsession with size and brute force is also a concern. His era has so far handed a few average players Springboks colours, while some outstanding footballers have been overlooked or simply treated badly.

Australia exposed the Boks game plan in Perth, while New Zealand also showed in Soweto that they are comfortably up to meeting the Boks' physical onslaught head on.

There is a time and place for a one-off runner, but rugby is a game of evasion as much as collision. The All Blacks grasp the balance and the result is there for all to see. Furthermore, the art of tactical kicking in both decision-making and execution has clearly not been mastered by the Boks.

As far is defence is concerned, there is a real issue. Defence coach John McFarland has a solid track record at the Bulls, but by the time Meyer put his management team together the Pretoria-based team was defending badly. The standards were being set by the Stormers, where Jacques Nienaber is in charge of defence. McFarland's work, together with that of kicking coach Louis Koen, will come under scrutiny when South Africa play Ireland in Dublin on November 10.

An area that is perhaps overlooked is that the Boks are short of leaders and experience, particularly in the forwards. Injuries have left them without loose forwards such as Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies, as well as robust hooker Bismarck du Plessis.

The emergence of a new generation of leaders is something that only time can take care of. John Smit, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez have moved on.

But even if it feels that way in the aftermath, it's not all black. We have a Springbok team taking shape. Jean de Villiers has done a fine job captaining the Boks under difficult circumstances, while Bryan Habana has eclipsed the form that made him the International Rugby Board's player of the year in 2007. Habana's performances have been an extension of his sheer desire for the Springboks to excel. He has initiated attacking play as well as he has finished.

South Africa's Ruan Pienaar poses in a portrait session, Montecasino, Johannesburg, South Africa, October 3, 2012
Ruan Pienaar seems to have made the Boks jersey his own © Getty Images
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The Boks did get it right against Australia in Pretoria, where they blended their physicality with enterprising attacking play. Eben Etzebeth has also finished the Rugby Championship as a lock capable of standing his ground against the world's best, while Andries Bekker clearly fits into the No.5 jersey left behind by Victor Matfield.

Louw, Duane Vermeulen and Willem Alberts are also shaping as a fine loose-trio. While the latter is an imposing battering ram, Louw and Vermeulen are doing a fine job of playing to the ball. All of them are physical in the tackle.

Meyer had Du Preez in mind as scrum-half and captain before picking his first squad, but the player's commitments in Japan made that impossible.

Francois Hougaard didn't meet expectations when he started at scrum-half, but Ruan Pienaar has since stepped into the No.9 jersey and made it his own. If either Goosen or Jantjies measure up, Meyer would have crucially found a halfback pairing to take him forward. The forward pack has also taken shape. All that needs to happen for it to be at full strength is for Du Plessis to regain fitness and replace Adriaan Strauss at hooker.

Meyer should consider integrating Pat Lambie in the side at fullback. The selection of Zane Kirchner ahead of him is a mind-boggler. JP Pietersen will also return to provide the Boks with another afterburner and the selection of the back three going forward will be interesting.

So at least the Rugby Championship has yielded a few answers to go with the many questions. The tour to the northern hemisphere will now be crucial as Meyer continues to reshape the Boks.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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