Meyer: Man who slipped near summit

2015-12-03 18:04
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Heyneke Meyer came closer than many people will concede, after a plucky three-year climb, to taking his Springbok team to a gorgeous view from a mountain top.

I stoutly, unapologetically defended his vision for a sizeable chunk of his head-coach reign, because for a long time he did seem to be getting the balance spot-on between good old, natural Bok “grunt” and sleight of hand in attacking play.

But then in his pivotal fourth year in charge -- a maiden World Cup one for him -- he suddenly lost his footing and tumbled all too indelicately back toward base camp.

The 2015 calendar year truly proved his ill-timed annus horribilis.

 It was one not that widely anticipated, when you consider that he had a prior knack of building a patient head of steam as a coach even as he shrugged off setbacks along the way. (His Bulls era, which included some dreadful false starts but would later also feature the first South African title-winning success of the “modern” Super Rugby era in 2007, comes to mind as a good example of his tenacity and perseverance.)

Just on that basis, you could not have written off the possibility of 2015 becoming a cherry-on-top sort of Test season for him.

With an assault on the Webb Ellis Cup easily the priority goal, I was even prepared to forgive him that notably poor, winless showing in an abbreviated, experimental-themed Rugby Championship.

But then came Brighton.

The southern English seaside city will forever in the rugby union annals be reflected now as scene of one the most earth-shattering international results as Eddie Jones’s Japan humiliated superpower South Africa in the Boks’ first match at RWC 2015.

Perhaps it also ended up signalling, in many ways, the start of Meyer’s stubborn retreat from his once expressive, budding total-rugby template.

Cajoled by some senior personnel in the squad, his Bok side increasingly pulled back from a ball-in-hand ethic to that numbing, defence- and collision-obsessed style that is not incapable of winning them major encounters but also seldom works from a sustainability point of view given the extreme physical demands involved.

Meyer comprehensively, depressingly undid all his gains of the first three years in making the Boks a watchable, unpredictable outfit, as they instead rounded off their World Cup with a trio of joyless matches against Wales, New Zealand and Argentina.

Those palpably non-ambitious showings in terms of playing style represented a last straw for many observers, and only seemed to further justify the passage of the country’s greatest southern hemisphere rivals, the All Blacks and Wallabies – both playing a sparkling brand firmly rooted in the here and now -- to what proved an unusually thrilling showpiece.

The Boks came home with bronze medals after bludgeoning their way to hangover victory over the Pumas, but by then a cynical “so what?” feeling had taken root among a significant lobby of their supporters.

You could argue that as his empire began to totter, so some of Meyer’s more neurotic characteristics came increasingly obviously into play.

He would all too often attribute a cautious selection or strategic step to “being worried by X” or because “I am afraid of Y”.

It just seemed to indicate that his proactive tendencies were gradually being overshadowed and eroded by reactive, even paranoid ones.

I wonder whether this edginess didn’t begin to damagingly infect the dressing room, too.

Yet things could have been so different for Meyer, who may have taken hair-pulling exasperation to new levels of theatre when caught on TV in the match-day booth, but also won our hearts on other occasions for those explosive demonstrations of unbridled joy when communication wires and devices would fly all around him and he would very nearly necessitate a call to PG Glass.

While he managed a miserly, lone triumph in eight over a New Zealand side basking in a golden era, the Boks might have pinched one or two more against their foremost foes with a bit of luck, and they earned effusive praise from neutrals for their fulsome contributions to some SA-NZ classics during the coach’s four years.

Meyer’s record against most other leading powers was overwhelmingly glowing, which explains why he won just over two thirds of his 48 Test matches despite the frequent punctures against the All Blacks.

Maybe it is because in looks, grooming and manner he can sometimes come across as the stereotypical, conservative small-town boy, but I never felt he got enough credit for just how frequently and bravely in his first two or three years he dragged himself out of his comfort zone to bring extra elements of risk and adventure to the Springbok side.

Revisit the tapes of some Meyer Tests from that period: you will not struggle to find thrill factor or abundant tries, many of which would be among prime candidates if you assembled one of those “100 Best” sort of DVDs.

Especially up-tempo team triumphs I can think of include the 55-6 demolition of Scotland and 38-16 thumping of Wales in Durban during 2014, whilst in 2013 there was that 73-13 result against Argentina in Soweto and bonus-point 38-12 disposal of Australia in their own Brisbane backyard – once a hoodoo city of note to the Boks and South African rugby teams generally.

Meyer  also broke a four-match (spread over 16 years) away losing sequence against France in November 2013, seeing them off 19-10 in Paris at the end of a second successive all-conquering Euro tour.

He made some dramatic about-turns in staffing terms during his tenure, as well, showing an open-mindedness that may have startled some critics.

For instance, he swung from Zane Kirchner to Willie le Roux at fullback (the proverbial chalk and cheese), and Morne Steyn to a callow Handre Pollard at flyhalf – Pollard did some outrageously brilliant things before he was gradually disempowered as the Boks clammed up and returned to script-heavy rugby.

Meyer also confounded some scribes when he suddenly recalled from a lengthy wilderness the Bok open-side talisman of 2009, Heinrich Brussow – a player he was supposedly staunchly averse to, if the rumour mill was to be believed.

He also appointed and then stuck loyally (at least while he could) to a captain of considerable comfort and chutzpah in Jean de Villiers, who performed many of his duties courageously – often in the face of considerable personal adversity – and with a fine sense of diplomacy and sportsmanship.

Still, in the final analysis, I will have to remember Heyneke Meyer as the Bok coach who got profoundly cold feet, from a positively warm start.

He remains an astute, conscientious rugby man and, for the little it matters, one I respect. More pleasingly for him, he can claim the admiration and friendship of Steve Hansen, coach of the RWC-winning All Blacks, which says something.

Meyer should not struggle to find a new salary source, whenever he decides to dangle his CV out there again.

He warrants that much.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  heyneke meyer  |  rugby

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