Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is a man whose dream has turned into a nightmare.
A rank-and-file player in his youth in Pretoria, his ambition was to be a good coach with the plum job of coaching the Springboks as the ultimate goal.
It was an ambition that came true in early 2012 when he was named to succeed South Africa’s first black coach, Peter de Villiers, after the Springboks had been knocked out in the quarterfinal stages of the 2011 rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
It was said that on the back of the excellence of his Bulls team, Meyer had been lined up to succeed Jake White in 2008, but transformation considerations had pushed the maverick De Villiers to the fore.
Quietly spoken, almost diffident, one could sense Meyer’s deep pride at being chosen, even though it had already become common practice to label the Springbok coaching job a poisoned chalice.
He used words such as ‘awesome’ to describe his role and phrases such as “I just want to make the country proud”, and there was an acceptance that he was the right man for a difficult role.
Hailing from Nelspruit in the lowveld, part of the Blue Bulls’ hinterland, he graduated with a BA in sports psychology at the University of Pretoria. For him, the attraction of rugby early on was the chess game of coaches rather than the hurly-burly that took place on the field.
He became head coach of Tukkies before setting about building his CV. There were spells with South Western Districts and assistant jobs with the Stormers, the Junior Springboks and the Springboks (under Nick Mallett) before he was put in charge of the Blue Bulls.
Meyer suffered an initial lack of success in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby competitions and was axed.
However, perhaps recognising that they needed his organisational skills and management, he returned as head coach in 2005.
He set about building a formidable team and establishing a winning pattern that his players believed in.
He was rewarded when the Bulls became South Africa’s first winners in Super Rugby in 2007 by defeating the Sharks in an all-South African final in Durban.
Meyer next accepted the coach’s job at top English club Leicester, but this stint in a foreign country was cut short due to the illness of his wife and he was forced to return to South Africa.
However, Meyer’s influence and the team he had built remained at Loftus Versfeld and, under Frans Ludeke, the Bulls won two more Super Rugby championships, thrashing the Chiefs in Pretoria in 2009 and beating the Stormers at Orlando Stadium in 2010.
On his return from England, Meyer took on a team-building role at the Bulls and, although he was hotly favoured to be handed the Springboks job in 2008, he lost out to De Villiers.
By 2012, he was virtually the only candidate worth considering, and the job he had dreamed about was his.
Meyer’s initial period was most successful, as his Bok teams beat everyone put before them, except for South Africa’s greatest opponents, New Zealand’s All Blacks.
However, right from the start, there were indications that Meyer was set on a conservative path based on his Bulls structure and the players there.
He persuaded Victor Matfield to come out of retirement and convinced Fourie du Preez to return from Japan. With Matfield not back yet, he seemed to be leaning towards Schalk Burger or Bismarck du Plessis as his captain. But when injuries got in the way, he appointed Jean de Villiers.
He and the Western Province man formed a strong bond, so much so that he was prepared to take a big gamble to take De Villiers to this year’s World Cup after he had suffered a devastating knee injury (followed by a broken jaw), and his loyalty to other older or injured players overrode rugby logic.
It was also clear from the start that Meyer did not fully grasp the imperatives of transformation in the national setup and it was always apparent that, come this year’s World Cup, he would run into trouble on that front.
Long before the Springboks’ shock defeat to Japan in their opening game last Saturday, Meyer had not only lost the faith of the broader community, but also that of the rugby faithful.
His selections were uncertain, his game plan unclear and, when a series of defeats greeted the run-up to the World Cup, the coach became increasingly unpopular.
The selection of the World Cup squad was greeted with opprobrium from all quarters and Meyer, a decent and righteous man, was suddenly immensely unpopular – and seemed not to know how to handle it.
It is significant that rumours ahead of the World Cup that the SA Rugby Union would offer Meyer an extension of his contract have not been realised.
A lot of what has happened to him is not his fault. For instance, the national coach can’t be solely responsible for transformation if the rest of rugby in the country is not fully integrated. But it seems that, like many before him, he will indeed be brought down by the poisoned chalice.
As things stand, the only thing that could save Meyer is if the Springboks were to win the Webb Ellis Cup – but that now appears very unlikely.