Meyer’s camps should allay fears
The one thing that Peter de Villiers did well as Springbok coach appears to be the one thing that Heyneke Meyer is so far doing badly.
When De Villiers was appointed to the job at the start of 2008, he immediately set about placating those who he felt might have the potential to feel alienated. The need for the Boks to be seen as a team representing all South Africans directed the make-up of his management team, and it also inspired his decision to ask John Smit and Victor Matfield to lead the team.
Both Smit and Matfield were playing abroad at the time, so they had to be lured back to South Africa. He could have gone for just one of those players, but he reasoned that if he went for one and not the other, it would not only potentially alienate a significant faction of players, it would also do so to supporters.
De Villiers had an understanding of the complicated machinations involved in bringing together the different styles and cultures that make up South African rugby as he had done it at age-group level, as both coach of the national under-19 and under-21 teams, for several years.
His predecessor, Jake White, had also been a national age-group coach, so to him the drive for inclusivity was also important. White knew enough of Smit’s ability to be liked and followed by all players across cultural and provincial boundary lines to know that appointing him as captain would cut across potential divisions in the squad and help mould the squad into a unit with single-minded purpose.
Meyer has of course had experience of coaching at national level after serving as forward coach to Nick Mallett and also for a while to Harry Viljoen. But that isn’t a position where you carry the same responsibility for overseeing the social integration of the squad.
Most of Meyer’s senior rugby experience has been at the helm of the Bulls, which is comparatively homogenous when it comes to rugby culture, certainly when compared to the nation as a whole or to the Western Cape. Meyer’s technical adviser, Rassie Erasmus, might be able to warn him against the perils that lurk for coaches who move from an area where there is homogeneity to one where there is diversity.
Erasmus experienced it when he moved from the Cheetahs, where like the Bulls there was a dominant culture, to Western Province. By his own admission, it took a long time for Erasmus to understand the diversity and to get on top of it, and you could argue that he never fully succeeded for it was because of clashes with the administrators at WP that he resigned earlier this year.
Meyer does appreciate the need to make the Boks appear to be the team for all the people of South Africa for he spoke a lot about that being one of his goals at the press conference where he was announced as the new national coach. I remember thinking that if he wanted to emulate De Villiers’ ability to make all the race groups feel included he was on a hiding to nothing, both for the obvious reason that he is not black and also just because few possess the natural charisma that the former coach does.
But what Meyer undeniably does have is technical ability and know-how, and that astuteness would have directed him in choosing his support staff. He knows what he wants to do, he knows what type of game he wants to play, and unlike his immediate predecessor, those were his chief considerations when he went about assembling his management.
Unfortunately for him the people who he is comfortable working with just happen to be from the Bulls, which is hardly surprising considering his involvement in rugby in this country for the past decade has been with the Pretoria union. It has led to the perception that the Boks are set to become the Bulls in all but name, and no matter how much he protests that, it is an impression that will remain, at least until the team starts to play and gets some success.
But there is one thing that Meyer has done that maybe not enough of his critics are taking proper cognisance of, and which should cut across the potential for the Bok camp to fall back into the old divisions that prevented South African rugby from being successful.
Over the past two weeks national training camps have been staged at which Meyer has had a chance to address and get to know almost every Tom, Dick and Harry who is paid to kick or pass a rugby ball in this country and who might conceivably be in line to wear the green and gold.
He has taken his drive to get his message across to as broad a group of players as possible to the extent that even members of the Sharks XV that play in the Vodacom Cup were invited to Pretoria this week. And next week it will be the turn of the Stormers players in Cape Town to get a chance to communicate with the coach and have their fears allayed.
Every Super Rugby coach I have spoken to who has had a visit from Meyer in the early part of the season was impressed with what the new coach was planning and doing. That such a broad cross-section of their players is now being exposed to the Meyer way has to be a positive.
I can’t remember a previous Bok coach making the effort to dig as deep as Meyer has in the quest to get to know the nation’s players and for them to know him. That the players are being brought into the loop and communicated with should surely off-set any negative message sent out by the Bulls-dominated management team