Heyneke Meyer should not be taking positives from a home defeat to the All Blacks, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
Meyer was the right appointment as Springbok coach. He had the pedigree, he did his apprenticeship and he suffered hardship en-route to turning the Vodacom Bulls into Super Rugby champions and the most dominant force in South African domestic rugby.
Meyer refused to compromise on excellence or effort with the Bulls. He refused to accept a very good Bulls team could find a positive in losing at Loftus. Meyer’s belief was you win your home games and you make your place one of comfort and joy for the player and supporter and the 80 minutes any visitor dreads.
Only then can a team start winning on the road because winning, said Meyer, is a habit.
Meyer’s coaching philosophy is the same as 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White’s. The two coaches, among the most successful South African coaches in the global game, have never been on each other’s Christmas list. Put that down to ego and ambition and a passion to be the one coaching the Springboks.
Meyer and White, when they started coaching, wanted the grand prize of being considered the best South African coach to lead the national team.
I love their passion and their work ethic and both men embraced a professional coaching apprenticeship that involved starting at the back of the queue.
Both men’s coaching careers are defined by a refusal to accept second best is ever good enough. And both men insisted on honesty within a team set-up. Both men also believed there was never anything to be proud of in defeat, especially at home.
Player conditioning was non-negotiable. Their respective game plans focused on the strengths and vulnerability of the squads.
Both men believe in total rugby and in playing with width and in scoring tries. And whenever I spoke to them about performance and ambition, they were adamant they’d rather win ugly than lose pretty. Losing was not something they ever accepted.
I remember White’s shock at losing his first Test as Bok coach against France at Newlands after being unbeaten in 13 home matches. He admitted to leaving the stands with France leading 36-26 knowing his Boks were going to lose. He was abused on the way down and, on his own in the change room, burst into tears. He didn’t believe a Bok team should lose at home.
White always tells the story of his first match in charge against Ireland in Bloemfontein.
Ireland were a team on the rise and White had picked a very young Bok team. He asked the Bok players if they believed they could beat New Zealand and naturally they said they could. He then asked them how it could even be a doubt that they could lose to Ireland in Bloemfontein; unless of course they were simply lying to themselves.
They hammered the Irish, lost to the All Blacks 23-21 in New Zealand and won emphatically against the All Blacks 40-26 at Ellis Park.
White didn’t compromise on honesty and when his Boks took a beating several times in 2006 his response was the players were not good enough to be No 1. He felt the players had also lost their belief because of numerous defeats against the All Blacks.
He looked inward, felt he needed the technical input of former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones and went back to the basic principle that if the players were not necessarily the equal of New Zealand, then they had to be fitter, stronger and better conditioned. This would give them a fighting chance at the World Cup.
White’s Boks never had to play New Zealand because of the famous French quarter-final win against the All Blacks and White says the biggest cheer he heard during the World Cup came from within the Bok team room when New Zealand lost.
White believed Springbok teams needed to win every Test and that the World Cup final was one of those Tests, albeit the most prized. Ditto Meyer.
Four years ago Meyer said he believed in winning rugby. Four years ago Meyer said he didn’t believe in excusing any defeat on the potential of coming good at the World Cup. Meyer, like White, refused to believe the Boks should ever lose at home, especially at altitude.
Both men, in the early part of their national tenures, would find no positive in being beaten in their backyard.
Meyer spoke of winning Test matches, of being successful 80% of the time, home and away, and of going to the World Cup with a winning habit.
The Bok coach, a man and coach of integrity and substance, needs to go back to basics because too often he is publicly applauding his players for coming second and finding the positives in defeat, away and at home.
The Boks have lost four of their last six Tests, against Ireland, Wales, Australia and the All Blacks respectively.
Meyer’s only success against the All Blacks came from a last-minute penalty at Ellis Park in 2014 when the Boks were a minute away from losing 25-24 when leading 24-11 on 50 minutes.
The trend at Ellis Park against the All Blacks has been too familiar. The Boks play with passion and lead for an hour and then aren’t in the contest in the final 10 minutes.
The most feared home ground, according to rugby folklore, has now become a ground of celebration for the All Blacks, who have won two of their last three and also won comfortably at Soccer City. Each time Meyer spoke of his players’ lack of conditioning and nothing has changed.
Meyer, in his first two seasons, was crushed when losing at home to the All Blacks, yet he publicly spoke of positives and being proud at yet another Bok last 10-minute blowout. That worried me even more than the result.
If it's about winning Test matches, then losing four in the last six, is not a positive. And saying the players now know they can beat anyone because of a brave performance at home to the All Blacks is also more worrying than the result.
I thought the Boks would win simply because it was non-negotiable in playing at home. I couldn’t believe Meyer’s cliché-driven statements of pride and belief and the game being one of millimetres. I’d have preferred the honesty of him calling the result for what it was – not good enough and potentially damaging to any World Cup-winning ambitions.
And frankly I’d have preferred an ugly win than a pretty and positive defeat.
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