In the latest SA Rugby magazine, Heyneke Meyer shares what he learned as Bok coach, and details his journey to the top job after twice being in the running before his eventual appointment. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
Meyer is well known for his time coaching the Vodacom Bulls at the turn of the century, the highlight of which came when the Pretoria-based side claimed the 2007 Super Rugby title with a thrilling win over the Sharks in the final.
Later that year, he was the favourite out of four shortlisted candidates to succeed World Cup-winning coach Jake White, but ultimately lost out to Peter de Villiers.
Four years prior, Meyer was also part of the original shortlist, but White was later added to the list of candidates, taking the job from 2004 to 2007 – famously leading the national side to a second World Cup title.
Nevertheless, Meyer was appointed as the Springboks’ head coach in 2012. Over the next four years, he would go on to lead the national team to 34 victories and two draws in 50 matches.
During his tenure, the Springboks recorded a 66.7% winning record in Tests and scored 143 Test tries – second only to New Zealand in that time.
Ultimately, Meyer’s last Test in charge of the Springboks would be the agonising semi-final defeat at the 2015 World Cup when the All Blacks battled back to secure a thrilling two-point victory.
Reflecting on all these highs and lows in a wide-ranging interview with SA Rugby magazine, Meyer maintained that his overwhelming sentiment was to reflect on the time as ‘an unbelievable honour’.
‘I was on the shortlist when Jake got the job in 2004. Jake came in late and I’m not saying he wasn’t the best candidate but he wasn’t on the original shortlist so I could have taken on the job with that team, but I felt I really wanted to win Super Rugby because people said it’s never been done [by a South African team] at that time.
‘And if we look at Super Rugby – and I mean this in a really, really humble way – it’s almost more difficult to win Super Rugby than to win a World Cup.
‘In the World Cup you need three good games but in Super Rugby you have to win all the way through. After achieving that in 2007, I wanted to take the team after Jake because Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez – and all my leaders and all the best guys were at their best – but that wasn’t to be …’
Meyer would spend time coaching at Leicester Tigers before his eventual appointment to the Bok top job, which he says came with plenty of considerations.
‘When I did get the job in 2012 I had a long discussion with my family and we knew it was going to be tough, because I was assistant with Nick Mallett and he got lots of bad publicity at the end, although now he’s a superstar again [laughs]. But what I didn’t realise when I took the job, is the strength of social media.
‘I’m not on any social media – I don’t even know how it works – but I knew through Nick, and going through most of the papers, and his family took it heavily. So I warned my family it would be tough, but it was only when I came back after the World Cup, that the impact of social media was really hectic, and on my kids … people are really, really harsh out there.
‘But, by saying that, it was an unbelievable honour and I’d do it again. Obviously, we didn’t win the World Cup and only winners are good enough for South Africa. I said at one stage that I let my country down, but Steve Hansen helped me a lot when it came to getting over that and realising that we gave it everything, and the way we fought back was unbelievable for me.’
Asked how he coped with the many challenges as a coach, Meyer said it certainly required him to have a thick skin.
‘I sometimes feel for coaches – I’m not a coach at this moment – but if you look at the World Cup in 2015, we played against the best All Blacks team ever in the semi-final and we lost by only two points, and against Japan by two points.
‘So that was the difference, otherwise I would probably be a hero in South Africa today! And there are so many small differences – there are so many things you can look at in the game: forward passes, knock-ons, the little things that can go either way but sometimes just don’t go your way.
‘But I’m still proud of the way we fought back. Look at Ian Foster; one week the All Blacks recorded the biggest winning margin against Australia in their history, but then they lost against Argentina and Australia, and he was crucified. That’s coaching, though, it keeps you humble, it keeps you fighting. And that’s why I believe in the book …
‘You get scrutinised by the public and the media but if you really love people and what you do, you will be successful in it. That’s what I want to put out there to people.’