England tour of South Africa
An audience with Heyneke Meyer
June 7, 2012
Heyneke Meyer unveiled as the new Springboks coach © Getty Images
Four years ago, when South Africa were looking for a new national rugby coach, Heyneke Meyer was expected to be handed the job. In his seven-year tenure with Blue Bulls, he had won South Africa's domestic championship, the Currie Cup, four times. He was also in charge of the Bulls franchise when they won the southern hemisphere's Super Rugby tournament, making him the most successful coach on the South African circuit at that time.
In a country where awarding jobs has never been as simple as choosing the best man, Meyer lost out and Peter de Villiers was appointed. Meyer's disappointment loomed so large that he quit rugby and took up a corporate position at a sports supplement company. It was up to Leicester Tigers to lure him back into the game but he spent just eight months there before returning to the Bulls in the overseeing role of rugby executive.
By the time the cycle rolled around, Meyer was again among the frontrunners to take over the national team. This time, he got the job. With it, he has inherited a Springbok squad in a rebuilding phase following the retirements of John Smit and Victor Matfield and the disappointing quarter-final exit of last year's World Cup. His main task will be to usher South Africa through a new era, something that Meyer has interpreted as being to get them back to the top of the world.
ESPN put 10 questions to the new coach ahead of the upcoming series against England to get his thoughts on everything from the lock problem to the Junior World Championships.
You've taken over the Springboks during a transition phase, what excites you about South African rugby as it stands now?
The more things change, the more they stay the same and I'm excited to be working with the best players in the country. We are blessed with some of the finest rugby players in the world and I think if we can apply our minds, work harder than ever before, stick to our structures, execute the game plan perfectly and play to our strengths, South African rugby can make it back to the top again.
How will you balance the building phase with the expectation to win?
It's very difficult to do that, as I've seen when I coached the Bulls a decade ago. We started building a new team but lost all our matches. For the series against England, our aim is to go out there and get the job done. Only once that's done, will we start building for the rest of the season. But winning remains the bottom line and we know that.
Are you happy with the arrangement of an interim captain, Jean de Villiers, for this series and what expectation do you have of him?
Jean's leadership qualities are well established and he has always impressed me, both on and off the field. I've also noticed the way he has led a young and inexperienced Stormers team in Super Rugby this year. Jean commands respect from everyone in South African rugby and in the short space of time we've worked together, Jean has shown that he understands what we want to achieve on the field. He will also be surrounded by a core of strong leaders in the squad.
One of the talking points around the final training camp is the inclusion of only four locks. Is it an indication that there isn't much depth in that department?
We've lost a number of very experienced locks to injury [Andries Bekker], retirement [Victor Matfield] and others have moved overseas [Bakkies Botha], so it's not a case of a lack of depth. Having said that, I have the utmost faith in the four guys we have here and I know they can do the job.
There have been a few worrying injuries, such as Jaco Taute's shoulder and Bekker's back - do you have any particular concerns about the strength of the squad?
No, I think we've put together a great squad for the England series. Injuries will always be a concern, but that's part of the game.
South Africa are preparing for life post-Victor Matfield and John Smit © Getty Images
You've said before that you would rather take an ugly win than lose playing the wrong style of rugby, how would describe your coaching philosophy based on that statement?
I believe in only two kinds of rugby - the winning kind and the losing kind. We're going to aim to play the first one using traditional South African strengths such as having great, big forwards and skilful backs.
What are you main aims, besides winning, for the series against England?
Winning is our only aim. But, it would be great to see a number of youngsters exposed to what Springbok rugby is all about.
Is there anything from your time with Leicester that you think will give you an advantage going into this series and did you enjoy coaching in England?
I've learnt a lot in England and I know a few of their players from my time there. Like all the experience I've built up over the years coaching at many different teams, my time at Leicester taught me a lot about myself and coaching on the whole.
Who or what have you identified as the danger men or tactics in England squad?
I was very impressed with England in the Six Nations. There is a lot of mental toughness and they get the balance right. They have an unbelievable defence and they put a lot of pressure on the opposition with their defensive game. They have a number of good players, but because we have so little time to prepare, we are focusing on what we want to achieve instead of what we think they might do.
The Junior World Championships have started in South Africa. Although your focus is elsewhere at the moment, you have spoken extensively about needing a national playing philosophy and style across the board. How much importance do you place on South Africa's progress in this competition?
It will teach our youngsters a lot about the pressures of playing at the top level at home and I really hope they do well. We've worked a bit with national Under-20 coach Dawie Theron and I'm excited about doing more of that in the future. I believe we have great youngsters and we need to ensure we bring them through and expose them to senior rugby in the right way.
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