Heyneke Meyer says the build-up to the Springboks’ World Cup squad announcement tested his resolve on several levels, reports JON CARDINELLI in Durban.
The Bok coach isn’t afraid to admit he is emotionally drained. The events of the past four weeks have taken their toll.
The Boks were under pressure following successive losses to Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship. Then the Boks lost to Argentina for the first time in history.
Some saw this as an opportunity to nail Meyer for a perceived unwillingness to transform the national side. There was a report alleging that certain members of the squad had gone to Cosatu to complain about the lack of opportunities for black players.
The Boks bounced back to beat Argentina in Buenos Aires, but Meyer faced a test of a different sort in the lead-up to the announcement of his World Cup squad. Many tough calls were made, and as he confirms, tears were shed in the process of cutting the extended group down to 31.
At the unveiling of the squad in Umhlanga on Friday, Saru vice-president Mark Alexander stated that South African rugby’s governing body, as well as the South African government, is satisfied with the transformation record of the Boks and the representation (eight players of colour in a group of 31) in the World Cup squad.
‘We’re happy with where we are with our transformation initiative,’ said Alexander. ‘We signed an agreement with the government and Sascoc. We’re on track. We can do better, but we are happy with where we are at the moment.
‘I’d like to ask the country to get behind this team,’ he added. ‘This country needs a good story, and this team winning the World Cup would be a good story.’
Meyer said that he was pleased with the mix of players that will travel to the global tournament. He spoke about the balance in the forwards group, and the thought that went into selecting players who have the ability to cover every position. This is why Trevor Nyakane and Coenie Oosthuizen, two props Meyer believes can scrum at both loosehead and tighthead, are going to the World Cup.
The Bok coach has sprung a few surprises, though. Cobus Reinach, Heinrich Brüssow, and Frans Steyn are just three of the players unlucky to miss out on selection. He said it was difficult to settle on 31 players, and particularly hard to give the players surplus to requirement the bad news.
‘The past two or three days have been trying and emotional for me,’ said Meyer. ‘All these guys put their bodies on the line. All these guys are good enough. So, to deliver that news that they haven’t made the squad is tough.
‘Guys were bursting into tears when they found out they were in the group of 31. Others were crying when they found out they hadn’t made it. That is always tough for a coach, because you want to help players realise their dreams. It’s hard, the margins are so small.
'What was great to see is that most of those guys stood up and said, listen we’re very jealous, but we support you guys, you don’t just represent the country but you also represent us. We are behind you, and when there are injuries, we will be ready.'
Meyer said that giving Steyn the news, who has endured a tough time of late what with the passing of his brother, was particularly difficult.
‘I see these players more than I see my own kids, and they see me probably more than they see their own fathers. You’re not working with numbers, you’re working with people.
‘Frans had a really bad time. We had a great chat at the beginning of the year. He really wants to play for the Boks again. He admitted that he’s made mistakes. His brother passing was really emotional. When I spoke to him about my decision [about the World Cup] he said he understood. He was so positive though, he said: “Coach, whenever you need me, I’m on the next flight”.
'Frans then gave me hug and had tears in in his eyes. I had tears in my eyes. There were so many players like that, who were close to making selection.’
Bok captain Jean de Villiers said it’s been a tough period for the team and management. However, De Villiers feels it could work to the side’s advantage.
‘In a way it made us stronger as a squad. I’ve seen how much we’ve grown as a squad since that loss to Argentina. There will always be critics, and I think it’s because people want the Boks to do well. And that’s good if it’s coming from the heart. I’m open to that.'
Peter de Villiers has been one of the Boks’ biggest critics in recent weeks, and especially hard on the incumbent coach. Meyer delivered a tongue-in-cheek response to De Villiers's attack.
‘I truly respect Peter de Villiers as a coach and a human being,' said Meyer. 'I think he’s done a lot of good things for South African rugby. He’s a great diplomat for South Africa.
'He's made a difference to people's lives, and hopefully he can still be involved in South African rugby. We need guys who can make a difference at grassroots level. I wish him the best of luck for the future.’
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images