Cape Town - New Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer got his first taste of how tough it is going to be to marry the two main tasks he has identified when he attended the media conference of the SA Rugby Union at its headquarters on Friday.
Meyer, who succeeds Peter de Villiers in the hot-seat, has been appointed for four years, and not the two that it was rumoured that Saru were offering him. While he appeared to be following the lead set by his predecessor when he said he wanted to be “a coach for the people”, he was also unequivocal about the task that he has set himself, which is to make the Springboks the best team in the world by doing whatever it takes to win.
“There are only two kinds of rugby – winning rugby and losing rugby, and I subscribe to the first type,” said Meyer when asked what style the Boks would employ with him as coach.
“The World Cup is very important, but you cannot build at Springbok level. The building has to be done at Super Rugby, Currie Cup and the lower levels. Every single game the Springboks play is extremely important, and the mission is to win every game we play. I believe we have to choose the best available team to win every game. I want to see the Springboks back at No1 in the world, which is where we belong.”
Meyer’s name was made at the Bulls, where he proved his brilliance at introducing systems and structures that ensured sustained success. When he took over the Pretoria union in 2000 they were languishing in the bottom half of the Currie Cup and they faced the threat of possible relegation from the top echelon. However within two years they had won the Currie Cup, and by the end of 2004 they had completed a hattrick of titles in the domestic competition.
The rise to success wasn’t quite as quick at Super Rugby level, possibly because Meyer had to stand on the sidelines while first Phil Pretorius and then Rudi Joubert were appointed by the national body to coach the Bulls in the Super 12 from 2002 through to 2004. However in 2005 he took the Bulls to the Super 12 semi-finals and again in 2006 before winning the trophy in 2007.
As the first coach to guide a South African team to Super Rugby success Meyer was red hot favourite to become Springbok coach in early 2008, but instead it was De Villiers who succeeded Jake White as, in the words of Saru president Oregan Hoskins, transformation considerations were taken into account. And the ghost of that Hoskins statement and the 2007 decision came back to haunt them at Friday’s press conference, with both chief executive Jurie Roux and Hoskins repeatedly being asked if this time transformation had not been on the list of considerations.
“To me transformation is not about skin colour but about how people think,” said Roux, and spelled out the Saru mission by pointing out that the best way to get all the people of the country behind the Boks was to turn them into a winning team. Hoskins answered the question by saying it was “an all-encompassing thing”.
Meyer, sitting between Roux and Hoskins, might have wondered at the irony of the situation, for it was common cause among critics four years ago that he was the best candidate for the job were rugby considerations the only criterion. Meyer, who is now 44 years old but first cut his teeth coaching at provincial level at South Western Districts when he was not yet 30, should have seen it as a forewarning of the biggest challenge he faces.
While De Villiers in charge the racial composition of the Springbok team became less of a talking point, perhaps because with De Villiers as the face of the team he automatically made the Boks seem more accessible. De Villiers may not have won the World Cup, but he did do a lot for nation building and attracting new supporters into the rugby net, something Roux readily acknowledged.
“When something comes to an end people tend to concentrate on the negative things, but there was a lot of good that Peter de Villiers did, and anyone who saw the amazing scenes when the Boks departed from Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton for the World Cup would agree with that. A lot of that was down to Peter,” said Roux.
Marrying the intense media and political scrutiny on transformation with the need to win has proved a difficult and some might even say impossible balancing act for many previous coaches, but Meyer seems ready to embrace the challenge.
“I want to be a coach who makes a difference for the people of the entire country, I want to be a coach for all the people of our country,” said Meyer. “I want to put the needs of the team and the supporters before my own.
The highly regarded coach was visibly emotional during the press conference.
“Words cannot describe how I feel,” said Meyer as he bit on his lip in an attempt to control his emotion.
“It has been hard for me to leave the Bulls, for we are a family, and it is hard to leave your family, but I want to coach the entire country, and I feel like it is my calling. I know how passionate people in this land are about their rugby and the past few days has been a humbling experience. I have hardly slept and it was a big decision for me to make.
“I know what a huge responsibility it is to carry the hopes and dreams of a nation and I needed to be sure I was up to that task before taking on the challenge.”
Meyer would not be drawn on questions relating to what players he would use or who/when he would appoint a captain.
“I want to travel around and get to know the players, get to know their characters and then make a decision that is informed,” he said.
The Springboks, as reigning world champions, arguably had more talent and more going for them in 2008, when Meyer missed out to De Villiers, but Meyer said it was the right time for him to take over.
“In my position at the Bulls I was busy recruiting young talent so I know as well as anyone what is coming through. There is a lot of talent in this country and I am sure that within a year or two we can be back at the top, which is where we should be,” he said.