New Springbok era dawns as Meyer takes reins
6/9/2012 6:00:00 AM -
JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - A new era dawns for the Springboks Saturday when coach Heyneke Meyer sends his green and gold warriors into battle for the first time with an eighth consecutive triumph over England at stake.
The clash of the national teams ranked third and fourth in the world, with South Africa occupying the higher rung on the ladder, at Kings Park in Indian Ocean city Durban is the first of three Tests on consecutive weekends.
South Africa began their dominance over England with a 25-14 win at Twickenham six years ago and subsequently won twice more at the home of English rugby union, twice in Paris at the 2007 World Cup and once each in Bloemfontein and Pretoria.
With further Tests at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on June 16 and Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on June 23, it is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that South Africa could be 10-0 ahead by the end of June.
It is hard to imagine a starker contrast in personality than that between shy Meyer and extrovert Peter de Villiers, whose reign ended soon after South Africa made a last-eight exit from the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
The 1995 and 2007 world champions failed to translate a feast of possession and good territory into points at the tournament before falling narrowly to Australia, and now it is hoped that 44-year-old former Northern Bulls handler Meyer can take them back to the top.
His introduction to the Test arena has been far from ideal with Super 15 commitments meaning he has had less than a week to prepare a squad lacking injured first choices like Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Andries Bekker and Duane Vermeulen.
Meyer wanted veteran Fourie du Preez at scrum-half, but a heart-to-heart chat in Pretoria last week revealed that the player once the best in his position in the world was not battle-ready after a 10-week lay-off from Japanese club rugby.
While a Burger-Smith-Vermeulen back row would be a match for any Test rivals, the absence of two-metre-plus Bekker is the one that could be most dearly felt with locks Eben Etzebeth and Juandre Kruger both uncapped.
"It is quite a new thing for South Africa to have two uncapped locks starting," admitted Meyer, referring to the iconic multi-cap partnership forged by Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield over the past decade.
Although Meyer raves about 20-year-old Etzebeth, believing him to be a natural successor to Bakkies, England must feel that South Africa-born Mouritz Botha and Geoff Parling could give them an edge come line-out time.
However, in most other areas the Springboks would appear to have an advantage, slight though it may be because of less preparation time and the lack of any altitude advantage in sea-level Durban.
The man England coach Stuart Lancaster -- permanent successor to World Cup flop Martin Johnson after a second place finish behind Wales in the Six Nations -- must fear most is South Africa fly-half and goal-kicker extraordinaire Morne Steyn.
Northern Bulls pivot Steyn was leading scorer at the last World Cup, is top of the charts in the Super 15 this season and is often capable of planting the ball between the posts whatever the distance or angle.
Flank Marcell Coetzee is the third Springbok debutant in a team containing 10 of the players who ground out a 21-11 victory at Twickenham 18 months ago when the countries last met.
England have chosen Test newcomers in loose-head prop Joe Marler and blindside flank Tom Johnson and just five of the 2010 losers remain -- wings Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, scrum-half Ben Youngs and front rowers Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole.
The South Africa media consensus is that the first Test will be a no-frills affair with few tries and conservative tactics all round, and that Meyer will have his wish of a winning start granted.
But former England lock Paul Ackford, who is covering the tour for the London Daily Telegraph, says that if the England tight five hold their own, it could be a lot closer than many expect.