June 29, 2012
Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer has plenty of reason to smile having beaten England in their recent three-Test series © Getty Images
If Heyneke Meyer lived in ancient Greece, he would have found a friend in Aesop. They may never have met, because Meyer would not likely have come from the same class as the slave storyteller, but if they had they would have agreed on one thing: use humble incidents to tell great truths.
Aesop's stories of geese who laid golden eggs, boys who cried wolf and tortoises and hares who engaged in races took simple ideas and used them to convey what some consider life lessons. Meyer is the same.
The first time he was interviewed by South African journalist Liz McGregor, he told her a story about people sitting at dinner tables in heaven and hell. Those in heaven gave the best food to their neighbours. The folk in hell had the same food but could not eat because the knives and forks they had attached to their hands were too long to facilitate moving edibles into their mouths.
The story is essentially about character - by being a team player everyone benefits but being selfish condemns one to starvation - but its meaning may not be obvious at first. Told in Meyer's English, it could be the kind of story that gets the new Springbok coach branded a Peter de Villiers in sheep's clothing. Those who don't know or understand the occasional Afrikaans phrasing that creeps into Meyer speak may expect that soon gems like "talk is cheap but money buys the whisky," will be sprouting from Meyer's lips too. Not so.
Meyer is unlikely to resort to the outrageous albeit hilarious side of story-telling. But he will continue to speak a language that mixes rugby, philosophy, religion and passion, the four pillars upon which Meyer's house of coaching has been built. The combinations of those factors is what Ian Schwartz, Meyer's long-time friend, former high performance manager at the Blue Bulls and current team manager of the Springboks, thinks makes Meyer "one step ahead of his generation when it comes to coaching."
While Meyer's game-style is not revolutionary and concentrates on strong forward play, his ways of thinking and expressing himself, be it through stories or not, are refreshingly different. Schwartz said Meyer has "an extraordinary vision of the game." That insight does not mean he has reinvented traditional ways of playing rugby in South Africa, but simply that Meyer has realised he cannot be overly creative and should work on skills and structure.
The imaginative thinking comes out in Meyer's mentorship, which is almost more important to him than tactical training. It was the quality that he used to turn the Blue Bulls from a mediocre unit into an extraordinarily powerful team in the late '90s. "His strength is definitely his motivation abilities and he takes it on himself to ensure that the team and each player is up for the challenge on every occasion," Schwartz said. "Players and management always believed in him because of that."
Meyer's days as a provincial and franchise coach made him first choice for the Springbok job when De Villiers was appointed and ensured that he remained the frontrunner four years later. But, it is also that background that will cause the most public debate.
Meyer was accused of being too inward looking when he picked appointed four assistant coaches from the Bulls, Johann van Graan, John McFarland, Ricardo Loubscher and Basil Carzis. Then, his first squad included 13 Bulls players, out of a total of 32, and the provincialism case grew legs. When he allowed Morne Steyn to continue kicking in the third Test against England in Port Elizabeth even though the heralded fly-half kept missing, the argument all but got up and ran away victorious.
But, it was a flawed discussion because Meyer's squad also included 15 players from the Durban-based Sharks and his captain, Jean de Villiers was from Cape Town. Along with the four Bulls coaches, he had also acquired the services of Rassie Erasmus, Louis Koen as kicking coach and former French international Pieter de Villiers, to help with scrums.
In a country where foreign assistance is frowned upon, to bring in someone like De Villiers (albeit that he is South African-born) was to open the system up to international knowledge. "His other strength is to get the right personnel around him to secure success," Schwartz said. "He doesn't believe having friends will make you successful, surround yourself with the best and success will follow."
Although the Steyn situation led some of the public to differ about Meyer's attitudes to people from the area he had worked in, Meyer had an explanation. He admitted to being concerned about Steyn's kicking but said his only other option was to expose the inexperienced Elton Jantjies in a tense situation. With Pat Lambie out through injury and Frans Steyn missing the match because of his wedding, Jantjies was the only other player available to Meyer and had the match situation been less frantic, Steyn may have been replaced. Given the conditions, which were windy, and the little that separated South Africa and England, Meyer hoped Steyn's "warrior" ability would see South Africa through.
That it did not is something that Meyer will likely blame himself, instead of anyone else, for. His goal was not just to win the series but to emerge victorious from every match in it. When asked before the England tour what his aims were, Meyer said he had only one: to win. Concerns such as crafting a squad that would outlive the transition phase would be addressed later, perhaps not even during match-time but rather in one of the camps Meyer holds around the country to identify and interact with potential internationals. Even then, Meyer did take a solid stride towards the future in confirming De Villiers as captain for the rest of the year, on the basis of his leadership in the first two Tests.
It was a decision that was widely welcomed from all quarters and one that Meyer will see as an essential step in fulfilling a third wish. "He is an emotional person and all he wants to do is to unite the entire nation behind the Springboks and make the country proud," Schwartz said. That may be difficult to believe, considering that Meyer picked what one Cape Town journalist called an "anti-transformation" squad, which only had space for four regular players of colour. Meyer may not have been given a mandate that instructs him to transform the team but there is a tacit understanding in all South African sport that a much-needed balancing act needs to occur to right the wrongs of the country's Apartheid past.
An attempt at that balancing act saw Meyer lose out on the job in 2008. It was made clear that De Villiers was appointed, as Oregan Hoskins president of the South African Rugby Union said, "not just for rugby reasons." Depending on which side of the transformation fence you sat on, Meyer being overlooked was either justified or completely wrong. Even if you sat on that fence, his current appointment is a case of the deserving man finally getting his chance.
To that end, one of Meyer's most oft-repeated phrases may come in handy, for everyone including himself. Schwartz said Meyer often says, "if you put charcoal under pressure it will change into a diamond." Strictly speaking, that's not exactly how the mining process works but for purposes of a parable, it's perfect. Considering the pressure Meyer will be under in the lead up the 2015 World Cup, it may be a comfort and a reminder that he hopes to emerge from it, sparkling.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup
The reopening of the openside debate, a dominant wolf-pack and a sublime performance in defeat - Monday Maul looks at the weekend's talking points
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Rugby Championship alongside the best photographs from around the domestic game