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The game of Heyneke’s life

2015-10-13 13:00
Heyneke Meyer

Cape Town – His body language on match day is so often a dead giveaway, and Heyneke Meyer is the first to admit that he “stresses”.

So don’t expect the Springbok coach to be getting the best sleeps of his life in the build-up to Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against Wales at Twickenham (17:00 SA time).

After all, he is facing arguably the most pivotal, “crossroads” game of his coaching career, when you think about it.

Not even the achievement of making the Bulls the first South African franchise to win Super Rugby in its properly pro-era incarnation in 2007 can be considered to rank as high in gravitas as this maiden knockout fixture at a World Cup for the very recently-turned 48-year-old from the Lowveld.

Unlike predecessor Peter de Villiers in 2009, Meyer has not had the opportunity to steer the Boks through what might be considered next in line for heavyweight status after RWC, a visit to our shores by the British and Irish Lions (next tour only due in 2021).

His tenure since 2012 has not yet brought the fruit of a Castle Rugby Championship success, although he does warrant great credit for overseeing successive sweeps of European end-of-year tours in both 2012 and 2013, at a time of season when South African players are seriously vulnerable to fatigue.

Considering the unexpected degree of turbulence in the Bok results column during the current season (including that RWC-opening Japan shocker), reaching the semi-finals of this tournament, all things considered, can probably be deemed as just about a “par” achievement for Meyer in his first exposure to a World Cup.

I would also suggest it is the minimum requirement from a public and, to a strong extent, punditry point of view if there are to be reasonably widespread acceptance levels over his reportedly on-the-table contract extension with the national team to 2019.

Expect a tidal wave of indignation and rebellion – simultaneously signalling or at least hastening Meyer’s demise? -- if the Boks, widely installed as favourites to topple the Welsh and still holders of huge 27-2 historical supremacy in bilateral wins terms, are instead swiftly shepherded onto a flight home.

Just by advancing to the last four -- and particularly if they can slay the dragon with some ease and efficiency -- I would imagine Meyer will earn far greater approval, in the public eye, for reported plans for him to build on his vision for Bok rugby.

Remember that reaching the semis also tees up an opportunity to play in what is now branded the “bronze final”, the playoff for third spot and at least the recognition that you “made it to the podium” at the event.

That match is still regarded as possibly unnecessary, hangover-type drudgery by some critics, but South Africa won it – against the All Blacks, which helped -- at the 1999 tournament when Nick Mallett had the reins and the team were able to return to an overwhelmingly good reception from domestic enthusiasts.

Should the Boks crash out on Saturday, expect vast sections of their following to quickly overlook the comeback strides the team have since made in restoration of dignity and playing quality after the Japanese embarrassment.

In short, they will demand Meyer’s head. Nothing less.

A mood may amass which renders null and void the tenacious support the coach is believed to enjoy in the boardrooms at SARU.

The fact that I might find myself, under such circumstances, a voice in a relative wilderness in not automatically joining the baying masses (brutal, often knee-jerk change doesn’t always turn out for the better, and there is Meyer’s first-class track record for slow-brew success to consider) would be an irrelevance.

This meticulous, workaholic and highly passionate man has his faults and inconsistencies, for sure, but after stormy events in Brighton he does appear to crucially “have the dressing room” pretty much en masse once more and there are few reasons not to feel chipper as South Africans about Saturday’s hurdle.

His charges are back employing a template of rugby that isn’t always aesthetically pleasing – though even aesthetics are open to different interpretations, yes? – but seems generally well geared to knockout needs at a World Cup.

Even his sometimes critical immediate predecessor De Villiers – remember that his own last game in charge was a World Cup quarter-final loss, in 2011 – effectively lauded Meyer on Tuesday in a column in The Times ( as he noted: “The Springboks have returned to their traditional ‘suffocate and strangle’ tactics, which once made them the fear of world rugby.

“It represents bad news for their quarterfinal opponents.”

Nor is it as though the Boks are basing their energies solely on relentless mauling and bone-crunching hits: a tries-for tally of 23 (second only to New Zealand) in the pool phase serves as testimony to that, including the prosperity of veteran outside back Bryan Habana for diving visits to the whitewash.

All that said, this quarter-final may yet prove a watershed rugby match for Meyer as Springbok coach.

If he gets legendarily fidgety at the best of times when match-day approaches, just imagine what the poor fellow’s going through right now ...

 *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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