Not that Ireland were under any illusions about the size of the challenge they will face during their three-Test tour to South Africa next summer, but the bid to land a first win there seems to have become even more difficult.
The return of top-level touring to the world rugby calendar will see Joe Schmidt’s double Six Nations champions go into the lions’ den next June when they visit a Springbok side sure to still be wounded after Saturday’s narrow World Cup semi-final loss to New Zealand at Twickenham.
Wounded but not dispirited. Far from it. Head coach Heyneke Meyer may be unsure about his future after four years in the green and gold blazer, but he is certain that the young players he has helped nurture in the Test arena have the potential to become world beaters before too long.
Going one better than the semis in Japan at the next World Cup in 2019 is a longer-term target, but Meyer insisted following the 20-18 defeat to the defending champions, the All Blacks, that youngsters such as fly-half Handre Pollard, 21, midfielders Jesse Kriel, 21, and 23-year-old Damian de Allende, and locks Eben Etzebeth (24 this week) and Lood de Jager (22) must resume their education at the earliest opportunity.
That means learning from their experience at this World Cup and hitting the ground running when they begin their new season on home soil against Ireland.
“It’s not just about four years from now. It’s about the next Test match and next year,” Meyer said following defeat to the Dan Carter-inspired Kiwis.
“Carter is one of the best that’s ever played the game and I thought Handre Pollard, our 21-year-old, was brilliant, as well as Damian, [and] Jesse. Our locks are youngsters as well, [prop] Frans Malherbe, he’s only a youngster (24). So, a lot of guys came through, a lot of youngsters, and they’ll all just get better for it. They’ll take a lot out of this, they’re special, the youngsters.
“A lot of these guys will be the [Dan] Carters of tomorrow and world beaters within the next few years. Our centre pairing, this is their first year playing together and they were up against three of the best centres ever to play the game and it’s the same for the locks and there were only two points in it.
“So, I’m very proud and a lot of those guys will go on to be the best ever to play the game, so that makes me really excited for the future of South African rugby.”
The learning curve grew considerably steeper after South Africa were beaten in their opening pool game by underdogs Japan, a result that shook the sporting world and rocked Springbok rugby to the core. The intensely competitive Meyer felt obliged to apologise to the nation following that setback in Brighton five weeks, ago but credited his players with regrouping well enough to reach the semis.
“I am very proud. I don’t think many people gave us any chance. We’ve grown as a team with great leadership and the guys came through and the youngsters really matured.
“We gave everything, but it wasn’t good enough. It will never be good enough if I coach South Africa to come close and not win.
“We had a chance and we should have taken it. We should have been in the final. So, proud of the guys, but definitely not happy and I will never settle for second best.”
Where that leaves the coach, however, remains open to debate, with a reported contract extension to the next World Cup in 2019 as yet unsigned.
Meyer refused to be drawn on the subject as he prepared for the unenviable assignment of getting his players up for Friday night’s bronze medal match against Argentina at London’s Olympic Stadium.
“Can’t you see how grey I am now,” he joked when asked about his future. “I have always said I am here to serve. I’m just thinking about today. I only wanted to make the country proud — not of me but the team.
“I believe we had our chances, but we faced an established team and if you look at our team, 80 or 90% of our players are going to have another World Cup in them. I really believe this team can go places.
“So many youngsters came through in all positions and I think this can be one of the best teams in the world but they have to take Saturday [the loss] on the chin.”
Veteran lock Victor Matfield believes Meyer would relish the opportunity to see his team come of age over the next four years.
“We have great young players here,” the 37-year-old Matfield said.
“It is a very young squad, with five or so experienced guys. There is so much talent and I think Heyneke would love to keep working with these guys.”
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