The road to No.1 for the Boks

2013-04-25 11:04
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo Images)
The only difference between winning and loosing is the treatment  the “outside” world gives you. Winning is nothing less than a habit. Rugby is a game played both on, and off the field. In any rugby loving country, it can take less than 80 minutes for supporters to change their perceptions about their teams.

But actually its means more than just a 80 minute battle between rival provinces and countries. If supporters are the shareholders of a team then the coach will be the chairman. If shareholders have arguments or even if they all agree, there's a reason why the Chairman is responsible for making the final decision. In proper companies , the CEO worked his way to the positions he’s in, disrespect towards him will only disrupt the company and eventually lead to a much bigger problem. Rugby works the same way, “supporters” are also capable of breaking a team’s spirit and at the same time halt their progress.
Even though we keep on comparing our beloved Springbok team with the All Blacks, we keep on making the same vital mistake. The comparison we should look at lies far deeper than the actual team. If comparisons want to be made, compare the support. For some reason we got stranded on the believe that we must receive positive results in order to give positive support. That’s the only advantage they have over us, and the exact same reason why we lost our no.1 world ranking position. It took the All Blacks 20 years to reclaim the William Webb Ellis trophy, and still, after all their failed attempts, on each occasion they where regarded as favorites to win it, even though they where known for their world cup jitters the past two decades. As small as the New Zealand nation is, 50 times smaller than South Africa, they are able to pick up their national team when things went wrong. Something that turned out to be much more valuable than a piece of silverware if one look at their reputation in world rugby.  

The difference between these two Southern Hemisphere rugby giants is simple. South African supporters wants positive results and in return they’ll provide positive support. The Kiwi supporters support their teams throughout failure. To them its all the same, the satisfying feeling victory creates, causes them to give more, and more and more. Springbok supporters support their national team, right UNTIL failure. We focus on what our team does wrong, where they focus on what they do right. New Zealand doesn’t play perfect rugby. They also loose, they are no different, to them winning is just more of a habit, a habit which slipped at Twickinam last year due to the fact that they took winning as a given. 

In the history of rugby, many lessons can be learnt. The fascinating part in all of this is the fact that those lessons repeats itself, over and over again. Each season provides something different, something new to learn from, and yet, in this country, for some reason, the “most valuable” lessons are misread, forgotten or regarded as part of the "worthless" past.

How is it possible for the Kings to manage a draw against the top of the log Brumbies with their World Cup winning coach? The hype in P.E is amazing, and they are 14th on the log. Their support is the best in this tournament, by far!!!! They don’t just believe in their team, they keep on believing in them. Even if they get thrashed by bigger, better teams, they have a reason to win. They can rely on the pure support from their fan’s, which gives them confidence, and in return, the play with confidence which is the best reward to any supporter. Up until 2 years ago, most people had no idea that P.E is such a rugby mad province. In their debut year, with every single odd going against them, they have the biggest crowd attendance statistic for their home games. Even though, “statistically speaking”, its against all odds to be successful!! They believe in their teams chances every single game. That’s priceless!!! That’s support!!! They wont end up winning Super Rugby this year. But the ark wasn’t built in a day. The Southern Kings supporters realized that criticizing their teams performance, hammering their tactics and blaming their coach will only attribute to something that’ll destroy the confidence they scraped together the past couple of months and eventually destroy the unique vibe they created under harsh circumstances. Instead, they praise their team for their qualities, their “never say die” attitude, their defensive efforts, they get praised for their unbelievable character.

 In the space of 9 Super Rugby fixtures, they went from “certain 5 pointer” opponents to grind out opponents, and yet to lose to any Australian side in this 2013 season. An “impossible” achievement on its own.
The same with the Cheetahs. They’ve been struggling to play consistent rugby, for the full 80 since their debut season. And now, after 8 rounds they are serious conference contenders? Did they all of a sudden became a championship team in less than 6 months? Or did they change their mindsets? They raised the bar, so much so that they went from being satisfied with a top 10 finish to claiming at least the conference title and reaching the playoffs! They still play the same game they always did, but its remarkably clear that they play with the type confidence Bloemfontein haven’t seen for ages. They believe they can do it, and in a strange way South Africans from all over believe they can reach even greater heights. All of this happening while losing some of their star players and yet there’s signs of improvement???

If your team goes the distance, when they win, its quite easy to support them. Very much the same as promising to donate the Lotto jackpot to charity if you win it. But I believe true support is the difference between winning and losing. It’s the times when a team ends up short, when it goes wrong, when the ball bounces in the unintended direction, its especially then where support plays a part capable of changing an ordinary team like the Cheetahs and the Kings into something special.
Sure, Its humanly to be grateful for a win and disappointed with a loss, but expectations, South African citizens and their definition of support must be restored to the appropriate balance before the all important, all round, winning habit in this country change into the unsinkable one we see in each world cup tournament.

But why is it that a nation criticize the coach and his selections, 4 years non-stop, and then suddenly turn around and make their voices heard when the occasion is “bigger”, or more rare, like in a Rugby World Cup?

The actual question is how come the Springboks preforms different when the stage is bigger?

Isn’t it the tremendous support and passion a nation provides in that special month or so every four years that's responsible for the boost capable of lifting them to their ultimate heights?

Why not every time, all the time?! Why not aim for an all-round South African top 5 in Super Rugby? We shouldn’t blame our tactics, but rather raise the bar, which is our standards.

The answer is a logical one, in a World Cup, the South African public supports the national team, as if they have no choice, or get paid to do so.  The 4 years in-between, they support their individual provincial teams and their individual players.

Individualism is the main concern, the core of every single accusation towards coaches, their selections and ultimately, their failure. 

Each of our provinces regard each other as their biggest threat, we tend to only  support our provincial players in the national team. We rate the abilities of national squad selection on the amount of players each “successful” union have in the Springbok team. We forget the fact that its actually the rest of the world standing between us and being the best rugby team in the world. Partly supporting the national team due to provincialism is a definite cause of divided support when it gets to our national team.

To select 15 individual “brilliant” players and then dub them as a Springbok team will not work. Any person with primary school rugby knowledge can do that? That’s not even close to being coaching, not even speaking about success. In my mind, Rugby is the most inspiring, “team” sport in the world. Individual brilliance isn’t part of the winning formula, its nothing more than a “part-time” ability,  generally created by a team, and then simply finished by an individual. In that case  every player is individually brilliant, because never before have two players scored the same try, together. The team creates the opportunity. In contrast, Character is “permanent”, it’s the most important foundation of any rugby team. A successful team relies on the spirit within their squad, their mentality, not only the mentality of the players, but their supporters, a nation.

The South African public keeps on hammering the squad selections, game-plans and individuality. Yes, we are most probably the country in the world with the biggest love towards Rugby, but that’s no reason to forget what made us one of the biggest, “rugby-power-house” nations in the world since our readmission back in 1994.

In 1995, all we had to offer was our believes, believes that the Bok’s had an outside chance of winning the world cup. Critics believed a quarterfinal spot will be as far as we go. But, like prevailed, a country believed in their national team. It’s the kind of support that came from deep within, spreading throughout a nation like a lethal disease.

Pure believe defeated the odds in 1995. An underdog team clarified that while a country claimed the true prize, to be reunited as a nation, a priceless reward for “truly” supporting the Bokke, becoming the best team in world rugby, was an added bonus.
We won the world cup. Unlike the glory we achieved in France back in 2007, we won the tournament in in 1995 without having the “best” team on “paper”, with a squad with no shining careers behind them to speak off. In fact, it was after the 1995 tournament that those players became instant legends, thanks to what can safely be described as unexplainable support from within. Francois Pienaar made that pretty clear. Actually it was so obvious, even the Americans with no proper knowledge of rugby ended up making a movie about it??

If they can see the magic, why cant we?  

Did we have any reason to believe they will actually win it? Where we forced to believe? Did statistics support our decision? Where we granted an actual chance on the ultimate victory? Did we own any previous records of causing upsets while the world was watching?

No, no and NO. We had to rely on 60 million believes, the most powerful boost of confidence in this game. We truly believed, with no expectations. A combination which I believed played a 95% part in that epic day, a day that’s unfortunately regarded as “history”.

We all know that legendary story, and of course the victory in ’07.  How about a more recent year of lessons freely given to benefit from? How about the 2007 Super Rugby season?  A year in which the “impossible” yet again got shattered.
Its well known and yet ,well forgotten that Bulls weren't always the force they are today. As early as the 2002 Super 12 season, the Bulls got their first team record. Unfortunately the one in ’02 weren't one to be proud of.  The Bulls are still the current “not-so-proud” owners thereof, it’s the most humiliating record in Super Rugby. They only managed 4 log points that season. An unbelievable statistic which is hard to believe comparing them to the constant contenders they are now. 4 log points, made up of a stuttering 4 bonus points. They didn’t manage to win a single game that year.

Happening in the early days of Heyneke Meyer’s coaching career, this humiliating situation in the Bulls camp became a golden opportunity for a coach to show his class, for a team to change the meaning of resurrecting.  The Bulls slowly but surely crawled their way through the humiliation and defeats, improving game by game, bit by bit. Like any proper miracle, it took time, 3 seasons to be exact. The patience of 10 million Bulls supporters was required. In 2005, they managed to reach the semi-finals for the first time ever, even though they ended up short to the Waratahs. That being said, the turnaround still was quite unbelievable, the improvement “unexplainable”.

They kept on improving. Just two years later, they truly became the miracle team in Super Rugby and contributed towards the fact that this is one of the most competitive and toughest tournaments in the world. They sure did add something unexplainably special. Something the 50 000 passionate supporters on Fortress Loftus that day, will describe as a “once in a lifetime” experience, something to be proud of, believe me.

In 5 seasons, The Bulls managed to play their way into a position they where  actually regarded as tournament contenders. To them, an unknown situation. A situation with huge amounts of pressure that normally gets the better of an unexperienced team much like the Bulls were at that stage . Pressure which normally sent teams wandering “what could have been” into the off season, planning on improvement for next one.

But this was different from the outcome most predicted, including the die hard Bulls supporters that made Loftus their home on Saturdays the previous couple of months, the past 5 years!

 They had a single game left against a constantly poor Reds outfit ,(a team with their own fairytale worth telling). The Bulls had an opportunity to secure a home semi-final, for the first time ever against the ’06 Champions, the Mighty Crusaders.

This might sound simple and pretty straight forward, but the points difference was the biggest factor on that day, and it went against the Bulls, by some margin. A simple bonus point win over the Reds wouldn’t be enough for them to stay in Pretoria for the playoffs. Even though a bonus point win would make it an all square affair between them and the ‘Saders on the log, the kiwis had a much better aggregate on points difference. Analysts and bookies had reason to believe all roads will eventually lead Christchurch, where the “record breaking Crusaders” most probably already prepared themselves for the final, yet again. Reason being - the ‘Saders where unbeatable at home for a couple of seasons at that stage, and even when playing aboard they were favorites most of the time, another reason why they are the most successful Super Rugby team in the history of this tournament.

It all came down to this last pool game left in the 2007 Super Rugby season, a Saturday night, in a sold out Loftus. Bulls vs. Reds. The requirement : A virtually “impossible” 90+ winning margin over the reds. Keep in mind that no Super Rugby team have ever before scored 90 points in a single game, not even mentioning the 90+ winning margin required by the Bulls on the day.

The idea of thrashing them occurred a couple of times during the week, but ironic enough, it was hard to believe they can actually do it.  Many believed the Bulls will  simply see this game trough and take everything they had to offer with them to Christchurch, and that this clash was the last vital opportunity to boost their confidence ahead of their (already booked) suicide flight down under. I’ll admit, even as faithful a supporter I am, this was pretty much beyond my believes, something that changed since that day, and kept on changing ever since.

An even more unbelievable twist in this tale is the fact that the Reds where the first to put points on the board. They led 3 – 0 early in the game, within the first couple of minutes. But that early 3 points, turned out to also be their last points of the 2007 Queensland season.

The bulls now had the mammoth task of scoring at least 93 points, in 75 minutes, without reply, to get that crucial home semi-final advantage against the Crusaders, a fixture which posed problems of its own, a fixture which could only exist if the Bulls managed to at least be victorious against the Reds.

That night, The Bulls won 96 – 3….

What Heyneke Meyer told the players before this game, only he will know. Was this the biggest fluke the game have ever seen before?

There's an old saying that goes – “Only time will tell”.

Time eventually told us that this amazing result wasn’t even close to being a fluke, and what time kept in store for us was that this wasn’t this famous Bulls outfit’s biggest achievement yet, as the following two weeks was enough to be writing about almost a decade later. Indeed…

Another upset? Yes, a Confidant Bulls team defeated the high flying “Crusading-tournament-favorites”  the following weekend at loftus. A result that made the never-ending 9 hour cue for tickets around Loftus the previous Monday morning more than worth it. Derick Hougaard played a memorable man of the match game that night, and an honorable place in Northern Transvaal’s hall of fame was surely the next step in the comeback stage of the general’s rugby career if he can stuck to his match winning ability at fly half for just 7 more days.

In the meantime the Sharks secured a first ever South African based Super Rugby final by unsurprisingly defeating the Blues in Durban. 

Then the big day finally arrived…

The 2007 final in Durban. A mouth-watering matchup between “The Consistent Sharks vs. The Confidant Bulls”. Strangely enough the Sharks where regarded as hot favorites at Kings Park due to the fact that they were unbeatable on home soil and their first win of the season which was against the Bulls in the opening round of the season.

Another first was the fact that a South African team will make their debut on Super Rugby’s list of Champions, another South African Achievement.

Like a Super Rugby final should be, it was tight, intense, and a jammed packed fixture with moments worth remembering, from start to finish, true to Super Rugby.

 With 5 minutes left on the clock the Sharks had the lead with a single point, when they scored a try which put them well on their way to became local legends. The try close to the touch line, made the conversion a bit harder for young Francois Steyn, which wasn’t their first choice kicker. Percy Montgomery picked up an injury early in the first half.

If the try is converted, they will most definitely win it, and the margin will be to big for a Bulls comeback. But Francois Steyn missed the conversion, and with 2 minutes left the score was 19 -13 to the Sharks.

What Victor Matfield told his troops behind the posts is yet again something that can only be labeled as absolutely inspiring, exactly what Victor Matfield can be described as. With clarity that a 3 pointer won’t win it for the Bulls, they had only 1 option, securing their own kick-off and score the try, non other than a converted one. Nothing more, nothing less. With time ticking and pressure mounting…

Two minutes and an impossible try, to hopefully destroy impossibility once and for all, stood between glory and defeat for the Bulls. Two minutes came, and two minutes past, the hooter went buzzing and the Sharks had every reason to celebrate. But the Bulls did manage to secure position just before the clock went red, deep inside their own half. One mistake, and its game over.

The combination between believe and confidence overwhelmed the durability of the Sharks' consistency that day. If one take a close look at that game, even after 6 years, its easy to see every single Kings Park crowd member waving a blue flag, believed that the fat lady can sing all day long, but for one last time, an occurrence which would be regarded as history in a couple of seconds will simply have to make space for this resurrecting Bulls team, due to the best moment in Bryan Habana’s rugby career.  

Habana went on to score that memorable try, one I classify as the best try ever scored, and Derick Hougaard was left with the conversion to win it. The last kick of the tournament, capable of breaking hearts with permanent, immediate and lifelong scars all over Durban, together with unexplainable joy in Pretoria. He kicked it…

My best Birthday present ever.

The Bulls ended their miracle season on a miraculous note, one which changed the game, thanks to them never giving up, and of course to the loftus faithful who carried them all the way to the end. 

In the space of five years, Heyneke Meyer managed a complete turnaround. He took a “4 Log points a season” team and turned them into Champions. Meyer left Loftus behind with an everlasting culture combined with unreplaceable character and passion. What he left behind remains in the stands till this day, and no matter what, it’s a part of rugby history, with enough power and capability to change any negative perception about his style, his selections and his mentality. If one believe, nothing is impossible. For me, that’s a life lesson learnt. The Boks went on to win the World Cup later that year, with Bryan Habana being named player of the tournament, equaling Lomu’s record of 8 tries, while Victor Matfield was named man of the match in the final. The perfect end, to a perfect season.

Then there’s the Jake White era from 2004 to 2007? The Southern Kings &  Cheetahs in 2013?…

The champion quality 2012 Sharks season and of course that Currie Cup Lions & Western Province teams.

This game provides a never ending legacy of lessons we can benefit from, all we need to do is believe. It’s the perfect formula to win the World Cup in 2015. Even more importantly, it’s the successful road to England ‘15 which will count the most.
Heyneke Meyer is the one coach South Africa has that's capable of adding the right pieces, building a proper foundation and stitching together a team with enough character to do the unbelievable. A team to go the distance. He proved that he’s worth the wait,  he clearly has the coaching talent and experience of turning a rock into diamond in a short period of time. The number one quality a National coach should have.

Where most of the South African public gets confused is the fact that a rough diamond looks quite similar to a worthless rock. It takes a specialist like Heyneke to identify them. Let Heyneke Meyer do what he does best, let him do what he did before, let him do his job, and most importantly, lets do ours, lets truly SUPPORT him, his way of paving the way to the ultimate prize and last but not least, lets fully support our Springboks. – A  team with a proud history and a bright future.

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