Gary Boshoff

Meyer and Div too similar?

2012-02-14 11:24
Sport24 columnist Gary Boshoff (File)
In last week's column I highlighted the reasons why new Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer received such a high approval rating from rugby scribes and commentators across the spectrum. Notwithstanding this impressive endorsement, he is not perfect. In fact, there are indeed a few areas of concern that require further elucidation.

Put another way: What is “Un-special” about “The Special One?

When comparing Meyer with his predecessor Peter de Villiers, the similarities are not hard to spot. 

Meyer started out with the same “open running rugby philosophy” back in 2001 (which De Villiers espoused to when he started as Springbok coach in 2007) with the intention to change the way the Bulls would play the game under his tutelage. He was very much in favour of the fast game and won his first competition (Vodacom Cup in 2001) with a ball-in-hand brand of rugby. 

However, as pressure for instant success from the Blue Bulls Executive Committee and other pressure groups in Pretoria took its toll on the young coach, he started to abandon his preferred brand of rugby for what has brought success for the Blue Bulls in the past: their traditional forward-based game. 

Another aspect of his character which is strikingly similar to that of De Villiers's is his immense loyalty towards his players. This is one aspect that stood out during his tenure at the Blue Bulls. You often heard the players saying that they were “playing for the coach” because he “believed in them”. He has demonstrated this by listening to the needs of the players, seeking their input on game strategy and tried to accommodate how they, as a team and as individuals preferred to play the game. This approach is indeed preferred ahead of the more authoritarian alternative. However, if carried too far it can become a liability. Towards the end of De Villiers's tenure as Springbok coach, critics argued that he gave the senior players way too much leeway. Too much player-power eventually led to indecisive leadership and individualistic play, which in turn compromised the collective goal of the team.

The danger for the Springboks is that Meyer has had very limited coaching experience outside the protected walls of Loftus Versfeld, except for a very short jaunt into the English Midlands. His loyalty to the Bulls and the players he brought through the system has the real potential of constraining his objectivity when it comes to selecting the best available Springbok side for the country. 

Already there are rumours abound of Victor Matfield having contemplated a return “to play for the coach” (thankfully he has since decided not to) while a possible return of Fourie du Preez to captain the Springboks has been mooted. If this is Meyer’s doing, are we going to see Bakkies Botha back in Springbok colours as well?

When Meyer says that he will travel to Europe to speak to South African exiles about their interest in donning the Bok jersey, I am reminded of De Villiers’s trip to lure John Smit and Victor Matfield back in 2007. An exercise that ultimately (in my view) had a massive (negative) impact on the Boks’ ability to qualify for the RWC playoffs last year. I guess, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A further consequence of Meyer’s rugby philosophy and Blue Bulls history is his stated belief in Morné Steyn as the first-choice pivot for the Springboks. It is therefore very likely that Steyn will be retained as the incumbent flyhalf. Where does this leave Patrick Lambie who clearly stands out as the country’s number one talent at flyhalf and who, in my opinion, should start playing in this position for the Springboks, sooner rather than later. How will Meyer deal with this conundrum? It has the potential to grow into a dilemma similar to the John Smit/Bismarck du Plessis saga.

Another chink in Meyer’s amour is the perception that he has not fully embraced transformation in rugby as an integral part of the South African rugby landscape. Under his reign the Blue Bulls professional teams have reflected the absolute minimum number of black players despite the availability of as many as seven players that could have played for the Currie Cup or Vodacom Cup teams at any one time. The culture at the Blue Bulls has throughout his tenure remained primarily white and Afrikaans. As a Black player you either had to fit into this constricted space or fade away. I have spoken many of these young black players, many of them from the Western and Eastern Cape, who found it extremely difficult to fit in. The question thus remains whether Meyer has since accepted transformation as a priority challenge or just a necessary evil to tolerate at the very bare minimum. Time will tell.

Finally, one aspect where he is very different from De Villiers is that he is somewhat publicity shy and tends to be a bit of a recluse. This will have to change and fast. In the past he has also been very reluctant to share his rugby knowledge and expertise with the rest of South Africa. It is going to be fascinating to see how Meyer deals with provincial and Super Rugby coaches who are reluctant to share their players and insight with the Springbok coach. 

When SARU had national coach’s indabas during Meyer’s reign at the Blue Bulls, he never bothered to attend these events, but dispatched one of his junior deputies instead as he seemed reluctant to move beyond the Bulls’ call of duty and actively serve the national cause. This time around the shoe will be on the other foot and he will experience the view from the other side. Getting the Super Rugby coaches to co-operate is a delicate exercise, one which none of his predecessors managed to overcome. 

He should know.

Meyer has “changed sides” (province to national) and as such his chances of success is now directly related to how quickly and effectively he can adapt to the demands of the new environment he finds himself in. 

Pieter-Dirk Uys summed it up fittingly in one of his earlier plays: “Adapt or Die”.

Gary Boshoff is a former SARU player and current Afrikaans rugby commentator on SuperSport.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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