Laying a firm foundation
RYAN VREDE chats to Heyneke Meyer about what he and his Springbok technical team do during the Super Rugby season.
Ever wondered exactly what the Springbok coach and his technical team do during Super Rugby? So did we, so we set about trying to get clarity on this issue.
Given SA Rugby magazine's strong professional relationship with Heyneke Meyer, forged over a number of years, we speak with authority when we say that the man’s work ethic is unquestionable. Under his watch there is likely to be more activity during a non-Test window than under any of his predecessors. He demands much from those he works with and has defined their roles and the expectations that accompany those roles clearly.
The quality of the outcome is ultimately what interests us. How Meyer and his team fare in this foundation-setting stage of the year will have a significant bearing on the Springboks’ fortunes later.
We put a range of questions to Meyer on this topic:
What does an average week look like for you in terms of your Springbok-related planning?
There is nothing like an average week. There isn’t a set routine. Between meetings with various role players, planning sessions, franchise visits and taking my sons to school, I don’t even have time for a round of golf [laughs]! It’s very dynamic and ever changing. We can’t, for example, sit every Monday at 10am and look at the past weekend’s games, because one of my assistants or myself might not be available because of commitments that may see them visiting provinces and franchises and so on.
What analysis systems are there in place to accurately assess players for Springbok selection and take some of the subjectivity out of selection?
We use a number of programmes to track players during Super Rugby and log their performance on a central system at Saru. But it’s impossible to take out subjectivity when it comes to selection, because no system can track the special things players do on the field. We also look wider than just performance during matches. Basically, stats are not always a true reflection of what actually happens on the field. Every team plays to a different style and pattern of rugby, and in the end their coaches expect different things from them – something stats can’t truly reflect.
What does reviewing a weekend's play entail? Who is involved, what do you look for in particular, and what is the outcome focus?
Experience, combinations, trust in a player’s ability and leadership all play a role. Like I said, we use performance analysis to look at players and everyone on my coaching team, as well as people in Saru’s high performance department, are involved. We – and this includes the national selectors – look at a lot of aspects in the play of a lot of players. In the end, we need to ensure that the right players are selected when we name a Springbok squad.
How often are you in contact with franchise conditioning coaches and how accommodating are they in terms of certain requests that you may lodge?
We are continuously working on building a good relationship with the franchises across all levels of the game – coaching, conditioning, medical and rehabilitation. We don’t lodge requests with them. When the players are with their franchises, they ‘control’ those players and we trust them with that responsibility. The players are their assets and they make sure they deliver world-class professionals. The important thing is that we are on the same page, that we all understand each other and we trust each other’s judgement.
What level of feedback do you receive from franchise conditioning coaches and what is the involvement of the Bok conditioning coach?
Basil Carzis [right], the Springbok conditioning coach, has either visited or been in contact with all his colleagues at the various franchises to ensure we all work with the same goal in mind, which is to have our players as fit and well-conditioned as possible for top level rugby. The strength and conditioning coaches at the franchises are very accommodating and want to work with us, with the plan to get feedback from them on a regular basis. This will include information on the types of fitness and conditioning sessions they are doing, the intensity and volume, as well as game time and general feedback on the current condition of players. We are also working on a national conditioning strategy that we hope will be beneficial for South African rugby as a whole. The players’ welfare is the highest priority in that strategy.
You’ve often spoken about the desire to be more involved at the franchises by aiding in the coaching process or sending your assistants to help with specifics. How realistic is that objective or has it been implemented already?
We are already actively involved at the franchises, helping out where we can and also learning from the franchises – it’s a two-way street and anyone who thinks he knows everything or loses the desire to learn, might just as well pack his bags and move on.
You also spoke about regular meetings with the franchise coaches throughout Super Rugby where ideas are shared and problems workshopped. Will that happen?
The entire Springbok coaching team is continuously available to help and we have regular discussions and feedback. I say again, the important thing is that we are on the same page, understand each other and we trust each other’s judgement. Every franchise’s coaching team manages their own business. I can’t tell them what to do, how to coach, who to pick. They have been appointed because they are the best and successful. We use each other as soundboards, for advice and for support. From late February onwards I spent time visiting all the franchises. These visits are very important, because the players spend most of their time at their franchises and we only have them a week prior to each Test, which is why I’m very appreciative of the franchises being so accommodating. We need to work together to make South African rugby the best in the world and at the moment I’m seeing a great attitude from all the franchises towards me and the Boks.
When you're watching a match involving a South African team are you looking more at individual performances or the overall picture?
I look at all aspects and new talent and at the same time keep my fingers crossed that none of the players pick up serious injuries.
By when do you have a good idea of which players will represent the Springboks in the mid-year Tests?
I think we did well last year in establishing the core of a squad that we can carry on with this season, but there are a number of players who are still on our radar, even though they might not have played for the Springboks last year. I am looking forward to seeing a lot of the injured players from last year back in action this season. I will always hope that new talent will come through and put pressure on the incumbents. I will always hope that current Springboks prove to everybody that they are the best. Competition is healthy and will make the Boks better.
Finally, if for example you see a highly gifted player at Varsity Cup level who doesn't have a provincial contract, would you endeavour to get that player into a provincial system with a view to watching his progress, or does that responsibility lie entirely with the unions?
As a rugby lover to the core, I would always try and assist players when it comes to establishing a career, but our unions are also very good at this and there are, to my mind, no players who will fall through the cracks, so to speak.