Heyneke’s perilous PR game

2015-11-02 13:36
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)

Cape Town – Perhaps with a twist of irony, Heyneke Meyer seems to have decided attack is the best form of defence.

If that was taking root in a rugby context as indicative of a brave new way ahead for the Springboks, be sure you’d hear no lack of hallelujahs.

But Meyer’s approach instead relates more to the increasingly indignant and defiant manner in which he is justifying his likely extended tenure as national coach.

He has been out of the country for pretty close to two months, so may be just a tad out of touch with the mood among home-based Bok supporters.

To say that there is increased restlessness among the public is close to an understatement, and if he suspects his team securing RWC 2015 bronze status in a hollow, tepid playoff against Argentina has quelled that phenomenon, he could find himself in for an unwelcome surprise as he slots back into the local scene for the summer.

In short, after a resurgent and sometimes pleasingly vibrant “middle” phase of the tournament in which his charges commendably laid to rest the ghosts of their tumultuous Brighton defeat to Japan, the Boks largely fell back into old, dour and lopsidedly rigid ways in their trio of closing fixtures against Wales, New Zealand and the Pumas respectively.

An unusually swashbuckling final between the All Blacks and Wallabies only seemed to underline, really, how painfully Meyer had circled the wagons in strategic terms over the last three weeks rather than built on signs of fluidity and a re-emergent spirit of adventure by the Boks.

Instead of warming up to the desired crescendo after four undoubtedly industrious, painstakingly-planned years in the hot seat, Meyer’s challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup could be said to have largely fizzled at the key business end of the event as they resorted to a paralysing, safety-first brand of anti-rugby that would have won desperately few new friends among rugby neutrals.

But now he has come out guns blazing in the aftermath, preferring provocation of his critics to contrition over Bok failings – and this from a man who so often trumpets the virtues of “humility” in his media sound-bites.

“People who question my ability as coach should look in the mirror and ask themselves if what they are doing and saying are for the right reasons,” he was quoted by Rapport on Sunday as saying.

After a violently topsy-turvy season in which his Boks have won six and lost five Test matches – their most turbulent year under his charge, and at a definitive period – a lingering glance at his own reflection might be more constructive.

“I feel the team did well, and is transformed ... I sleep well at night,” was another statement that could be picked apart for pretty much all three contentions in it (anyone watching his idiosyncrasies in the booth on match-day, either in moments of delight or horror, could hardly be blamed for suggesting that consistently peaceful slumber is quite likely to be an elusive hallmark in him).

As for transformation, Meyer is skating on thin, delusional ice if he truly believes his selections indicate a fulsome desire to better reflect South Africa’s demographics.

At the slightly drawn-out bronze medal presentation at the Olympic Stadium on Friday, it just looked too glaringly apparent that a handful of overwhelmingly inactive, mostly black players in blazers and/or pullovers were bringing up the rear for the Bok podium formalities.

And was Meyer aware, for instance, of the torrent of incredulity on Twitter – it included some educated, balanced members of the game’s intelligentsia, not purely the inevitable social media hotheads -- that accompanied his decision to give Rudy Paige a flimsy three minutes off the bench against Argentina?

It is not as though stalwart Ruan Pienaar was full of vim and vigour on the night; the Ulster-based scrumhalf had been little more than acceptably functional, and to say that he was needed on the field for as long as possible due to concerns over a senior leadership void in the dying minutes (the Boks were well over two full scores to the good at the time) seemed either an insult to observers’ intelligence or a signal of worrying paranoia on Meyer’s part.

“I didn’t do X because I was worried about Y,” has become an all too regular refrain from Meyer in his dealings with journalists, even as his candid, detailed explanation of moves and strategies can also be a pleasing virtue at times.

There is even a case for arguing, in the currently fluid political climate following the nationwide student rebellion, that proclaiming “ANC support” – as Meyer just has done – isn’t quite as treasured a ticket to some sort of golden circle of trust as might have been the case previously.

Personally, I believe Meyer should be getting his head down right now, instead of belligerently ruffling the feathers of those whose reservations may not be nearly as sacrilegious or unwarranted as he suggests they are.

It is not his nature to be confrontational, and it goes against his rightful reputation for being a decent, energetic and passionate rugby man even amidst his shortcomings.

He needs to be winning -- or winning back – friends and influencing people, not antagonising people.

This is very risky “PR”.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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