Heyneke hounded for time
When the coach of the Springbok team is asked what he would want more than anything else in this world, you’d be surprised to find out it isn’t a game-breaking midfielder, a towering lock or a foolproof game plan.
What he wants more than anything else is the one thing that he has no control over -- more time.
It is clear that being an international rugby coach isn’t easy. While you need the wisdom of Solomon in making team selections, you have only days to work with players before facing the best in the world and, even if you win, you won’t make everyone happy.
So when Heyneke Meyer sits down and is asked what is the one thing that surprised him most about being Bok coach – compared to his successful coaching stints in both Currie Cup and Super Rugby – it is one simple word: time.
“The most difficult part of this job is that you don’t have time. You know it before you take the job, but you don’t realise how little time you have until you are in the job,” he explains.
“I hoped that I would get a lot more done during the time the players are with their provinces – and I have to thank the franchises, because they have really helped us a lot in this regard – but still the time is simply not enough. I’ve never had so little time with a team in my career.
“After the end of year tour, there are five months that you don’t see the players at all. While you may send emails and communicate here and there, they (the players) are totally focused on Super Rugby.
“In every competition you almost begin right back at zero again. I felt there would be more of a carry-over effect but there isn’t one and then you first need to get the guys right in terms of the basic stuff – the lineout calls and defence. In that way you move forward very, very slowly.”
And against that the coach has to weigh up public expectation, something that isn’t an easy task with a brand that aims to be number one in the world.
“People expect you to change game plans quickly but because you don’t have time with a team to work on things, it moves slowly.
“In every game the Springboks are under pressure to perform well and I learnt that sometimes you just need to concentrate on the basics. There is so much you want to change, but time works against you. That is why continuity is such a key factor at this level, because with so little time at least the continuity helps players pick things up quicker when they return to the Bok camp.
“We need to continue to move forward and keep continuity with this team and they will definitely become better as they grow. This team has shown signs of becoming a great team, and they have the potential to become a great team going forward.
“But the thing that caught me offside at times is that you spend 80% of your time at this level concentrating on the basics. You don’t have time to try and develop players’ skills at this level. Going forward we are going to have to make a massive effort across the country in getting those skills levels up.”
Meyer though admits that complaining about time is like complaining about the weather – you simply have no control over what happens and you have to make the best of what is given you.
But for a coach whose passion is to build, who has a track record and is well-known for his motivational abilities, you would think he would be cut a lot more slack than the South African public has given him.
He has been at the helm for just 17 test matches and boasts an impressive 70% win record (a statistic that gets better when you realise the two draws the Boks have had in this time aren’t included).
But still he is vilified by fans that place him in a box, affix a label and won’t change their minds. Despite a decent progression and a host of new faces, he is seen at times as one-dimensional, Bulls-minded and too loyal to certain players, even though a closer examination of what he has done in his time at the helm shows a very different reality.
This season alone his side has scored 27 tries in five matches, and is steadily progressing upwards.
Considering the time he has had and the huge exodus of players after the 2011 World Cup, most rugby nations would be a lot happier with that statistic than South African fans are.
Meyer readily admits some of the criticism stings far too much. He wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. But determination, passion and grit will ensure he soldiers on – much like he did in his time at the Bulls – against the tide until he reaches his goal.
“One thing I learnt in this position is that you will always be criticised,” he reveals as he stares into the distance.
“The other day I was asked if I would choose Quade Cooper if I was the Australian coach and I said yes. But then someone wrote ‘how must Morne feel?’ when I clearly said I was happy with my team. It shows you will always get criticism.
“I’ve been quoted on things I never said and been criticised for it as well. You are labelled and you realise that 50% of people will like you and 50% of people won’t.
“I’ve got to put it plainly, I’m here to serve Springbok rugby – I was at the end of my rugby career and had achieved almost everything I wanted to in my rugby career when I was appointed. I’m here to serve and I just want Springbok rugby to be in a better position when I leave. I believe we have already put systems in place that will benefit Bok rugby in the years to come.”
Meyer also admits he has made some mistakes at this level, a refreshingly honest take on the job, but insists not to follow his own path would probably be the biggest mistake he could make.
“I also learnt a lot. I’ve made mistakes, but the biggest mistake I can make is to try and please everybody. I learnt that I need to follow my gut. After all that is what brought me to this point in my career,” he returns with fiery determination in his argument.
“Take the question of bringing back Fourie du Preez. I knew I needed to bring him back, but I was worried about the reaction. I realised I needed to do what it takes to win, on my terms and with people that I trust. I know I need to enjoy my coaching, because a job of this nature doesn’t last long.
“I realise I’m here to serve Springbok rugby and, above all, I want to walk away one day with my integrity intact. I don’t want to turn around after four years and realise I’m a worse person for being Bok coach. I want to hold my head high.”
SOCIAL MEDIA ABUSE
Perhaps the one thing that still irks the coach is the impatience of the South African public.
While there is overwhelming support from Bok fans, the advent of social media has posed new problems.
Abuse is commonplace nowadays for modern sportsmen from fans who feel they have a right to hammer them for their failings, but the advent of the social media circles have made it even more apparent, with the abuse sometimes bordering on the extreme.
Meyer is reserved when asked about this. He has taken abuse before from fans as Bulls coach – which almost forced him to quit a decade ago. Had that happened then the Boks may have never had the golden generation that he hand-picked as juniors and from which the core of the 2007 World Cup team was chosen.
But this time around it hits hard. He has developed a thick skin, but admits his family have been targeted worse than they ever should have. While he has received threats and abuse, his family bears the brunt at times from fans who are frustrated with the national team.
“I always knew it would be tough on my family but I never knew it would be this tough. You think your children are older and can handle it, but you realise it’s not always the case,” Meyer says.
“The pressure that people put on you, they also put on your family. It is bad at times. I never realised the impact of social media.
“I thought I could still shield my children from certain aspects of this job, by keeping newspapers away from them but they all have smart phones nowadays. Children send some terrible stuff on the phones, messages, photos and jokes. It is tough but they have handled it well.
“In saying that though there were some terribly tough times in that regard. I know this job is a privilege, but while I thought I would get used to it, I don’t think you ever get used to something that hurts you or your family.”
Despite that, and the disappointment he had to deal with when he was bypassed in 2007 for the national coaching job, he believes this is the right time to handle the challenge. It will be tough, but he isn’t about to throw in the towel.
“I’m in the right place now. I’m in the right stage of my life. I wanted to coach the previous World Cup team because I had worked with a number of the players before. But it wasn’t to be and I had to start afresh with a new team and a new captain.
“But that is what makes the challenge so much greater. It is tougher than I thought, but if I had to choose again I would do it again.
“I want to do everything I can, shake trees where I have to and try my best to be successful so that when I leave, the next guy inherits a strong team.”
PLAYER DEPTH CONCERNS
With that in mind Meyer will keep pushing forward to ensure he leaves the Bok team in a better place than he found it.
“We need continuity; I had to start from scratch. I want to leave it in better hands than when I started. You have to have continuity. Look at the All Blacks – Steve Hanson was assistant coach with the team for more than 100 tests and he can just go on.
“We need to get to that stage, to help the next guy and work with him to hand over the reins. Also you need is to work closely with the franchises because if you don’t have their help, then you are doomed from the start.”
With the Western Force having signed up six South Africans already, another dozen or so players plying their trade overseas for other nations and a number of younger players being targeted, Meyer is concerned over the player depth in South Africa, which is being slowly eroded.
Add to that the tendency to want to get rid of players who are over 28 and it’s easy to see how quickly player depth can become a problem in South Africa.
“I believe we should always play the strongest team when you select the Springboks. But we need to look at how we perceive players. When a player is close to 30 in South Africa we say he is over the hill. If you look at the rest of the world they look to have senior guys in those positions – obviously they need to be hungry and on form, but they are there to guide the younger players, who bring the energy into the team.
“The way in which overseas teams are recruiting our players, coupled with the exchange rate, will put a lot of strain on our depth. I’m worried about the depth in our rugby.
“It’s not always a case of not using guys but it is difficult to keep players in South Africa with the exchange rate. We’re going to have to have a look at how we look after players. I don’t think we have the depth that we sometimes think we have. If you look at the SA under-20s we do well, but we lost this year to a team like Wales.”
The Bok coach believes that fans need to realise that the playing field has been levelled by the strong European leagues. Teams like Argentina used to be behind because of amateur structures, but the influence of the French league has been massive in their play.
“There is an expectation that we need to win well against other sides, but rugby has changed. All of Argentina’s players play in Europe, as do the top players from other international sides.
In the past they were amateur but now they get professional coaching, conditioning and skills development. So the difference between the top players in countries is getting smaller.
“I believe in every generation of players in a country there are only five or six real game breakers. If you lose those players then you are in trouble. We don’t have the coaching advantages that we did in the past, the professional game has levelled the playing field and you have to keep your best players.”
All this underlines the difficulty of coaching the national team. But Meyer is adamant the positives still outweighs the negatives of the job. And to see the smiles and support he gets from a large portion of fans makes it all worthwhile.
“We want to be a team of the people. To be in this job is an amazing privilege, and I want the players to be role models in the country. We are on the right track and this team can become a golden generation of players.”
Meyer’s plans will take time, and it will take a toll on him and his family. But if he is given time and support, he believes the team will become something special.
“I’ve really been humbled by the support we’ve received – not only from officials at the top and the provinces in many regards, but also from the regular man on the street, the hard core Springbok supporter who only wants the team to do well. I would love to thank each and every one of these people from the bottom of my heart – it’s really been amazing,” he concludes.
He deserves a chance to see his vision through.