profile Springboks coach a man with vision .
. . and sights on the 2015 World Cup
It used to be suggested only the luckiest of Roman emperors got to die quietly in their sleep, and something similar could be said of the career trajectories of the men who have held the reins of the South African rugby team over the years. While a few Springboks coaches have managed to tread a careful path through the political minefields, the provincial bickering and the egotistical whims of the sport's officials, many more have come to grief in the country's snakepits of backstabbing, deceit and petty jealousies.
The often unrealistic expectations of South African fans have also been the undoing of some who have taken control of the team, with a decent set of results anything but a guarantee of job security.
Kitch Christie, the canny half-Scot who masterminded South Africa's epic World Cup triumph in 1995, was invited to move on the following year despite a 100% win record. Nick Mallett equalled the world record for consecutive test wins but was hounded out of office in 2000. Jake White also delivered the Webb Ellis Cup into South African hands, but the 2007 victory over England in the final was his last game in charge.
Heyneke Meyer, was widely expected to take over from White at that point. He was, by some distance, the most successful coach in the country, having led the Blue Bulls to a succession of Currie Cup titles as well as being the man at the helm when the Pretoria-based outfit became the first South African side to win the Super 14 competition. Instead, with massive political pressure coming from above, Peter de Villiers was appointed, becoming the Springboks' first non-white coach. As it turned out, when De Villiers was not making wild and inflammatory comments about other teams he actually clocked up a decent record – particularly against New Zealand – but when he stood down after last year's World Cup, the red carpet was finally rolled out for Meyer.
Better late than never? Not exactly. The arrival of Meyer, whose brief stint as Leicester coach in 2008 was cut short by a family illness, coincided with the retirement of a number of leading players, most notably John Smit and Victor Matfield. In a country where supporters are not exactly renowned for their patience, he had a huge job on his hands in trying to rebuild the side.
Talk about fixing the roof in a storm. However, Meyer's first outings with South Africa were in the three-Test summer series against England which brought him two wins and a draw. He also claimed a win and a draw against Argentina in the newly-expanded Rugby Championship, but his only success against Antipodean opposition in the same competition was a home win over Australia. Critically, the Springboks did not win away from home until last weekend's 16-12 success against Ireland in Dublin. Clearly, the reconstruction work has not been straightforward, but Richie Gray, the former Gala and Border Reivers forward who pioneered the creation of rugby academies in Scotland, has no doubt that Meyer is the right man for such a job. Ten years ago, Gray travelled to Pretoria to see what Meyer was doing at the Bulls, who were then struggling, and was hugely impressed.
"I take my hat off to him because he had a vision of what he wanted," Gray said. "When Heyneke took over, the Blue Bulls were bottom of the Super 12, but over three or four years he put in an outstanding infrastructure in terms of strength and conditioning, medical back-up and player welfare. He got everything spot on so he could then go and cherrypick the best young players in South Africa. Pretty quickly they became the top team in South Africa and he was the catalyst for that."
Like Christie and White before him, Meyer cut his teeth as a schools coach and understands that success only comes after the building blocks have been put in place. His approach is careful, incremental, but although he talks about the importance of every Test match, he has also made it clear that the 2015 World Cup in England is in his sights. By that time, he hopes to have a squad of players who are coming into their prime in their mid-20s but who have already amassed 40 or 50 caps. A graduate in sports psychology, Meyer knows it is not only about the development of their bodies and their skills, but of a mental maturity.
"There was a time when the youngsters would struggle away from home, but now I see confidence coming through," Meyer said. "The more time we spend over here, the better. I want the players to get away from the mentality of staying in the team hotel. I want them to embrace the culture and go out there. I'm happy with the spirit in the camp and I hope the young guys enjoy going out."
But will he get the time? Will a demanding rugby public, scheming officials and jealous coaching rivals allow Meyer and his team the space to grow? There is some truth in the saying that you have to learn to lose before you can learn to win, but is South African rugby mature enough to accept that?
Meyer's manner is charming and amiable, and that should help. And he has form when it comes to the long game. Gray tells a story that illustrates his way perfectly. "When I was leaving after those three or four weeks with the Bulls, Heyneke drove me to the airport," he says. "The Bulls were bottom of the league and all the newspaper bills on the lampposts were calling for him to go.
"There was massive pressure, but I remember him saying that you just have to keep strong and have belief in what you're doing. I always knew he would turn it around, and he did. You can't knock the guy's vision. He had that and stuck with it, and he succeeded."