The decision to extend Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok contract by another four years will benefit South African rugby in the long term, writes JON CARDINELLI.
On Wednesday, a local newspaper reported that Meyer will continue to coach the Boks after the 2015 World Cup. My information is that Meyer is yet to sign a contract that will keep him at the helm of the Boks until the end of the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Saru, and indeed all Bok supporters, should hope that he does.
One has to question the timing of the latest media report, given the Boks recently lost to Argentina for the first time in history and extended their losing sequence to four Tests in a row. That report is bound to encourage South African rugby supporters and stakeholders to focus on recent results, and reach a conclusion that four more years of Meyer and company will equate to more disappointment and frustration.
However, if one is to take a step back and view Meyer’s tenure in its entirety, one begins to understand why Saru intends to invest in his vision for another four years. An objective, unemotional assessment of Meyer’s time with Boks confirms that he has made progress on several fronts.
The move to lock down Meyer for an extended period has been on the cards for some time. In 2013, there were already rumours about a contract extension. Evidently, Saru was tired of having to start from scratch every time a new coach was appointed at the beginning of each four-year cycle. And in Meyer, a coach who had enjoyed sustained success at the Bulls for close on a decade, they saw an opportunity to build and eventually attain a number of goals.
The Boks finished the 2013 season having won 10 of their 12 matches, their best return in terms of a win ratio (83%) since 1998. In the wake of their victory against France in Paris, the first by a Bok side in 16 years, I interviewed Meyer and team manager Ian Schwartz at the team hotel. They spoke openly about their long-term vision for the Boks, and about the possibility of continuing through to 2019. They said that there was a lot more that they wanted to achieve.
Under Meyer, the Boks have evolved into a more complete and effective unit. They finished that 2013 season with more tries (on average per game) than the world-leading All Blacks. While they missed out of the Rugby Championship title, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen raved about their improvements on attack. Hansen offered further endorsements in 2014 and 2015 after Meyer backed several youngsters in the backline.
The myths about Meyer are exposed when one examines the player stats. He has recognised the value in old heads, and has brought back a few players (read Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger) who are among the best to have played the game. At the same time, he has sought to groom the next generation of stars. Some will be used at the 2015 World Cup, while others will be elevated in the four years that follow.
Meyer handed 12 players Test debuts in 2012, his first season at the helm. In 2013, he continued to back many of these youngsters. He brought in a further 11 rookies that season with the aim of bolstering the Boks' depth.
In 2014, Meyer made the bold call to back 20-year-old flyhalf Handré Pollard to start in the big matches of the Rugby Championship, and blooded 12 new caps in all. Three more players enjoyed debuts in the 2015 Rugby Championship.
That drive to expose more youngsters to the international environment will have middle- and long-term benefits for the side. Players like Pollard are now set to feature in the 2015 World Cup. Many more of those youngsters will have their chance from 2016 onwards once some of the senior players have retired.
The attack on Meyer for a perceived negative attitude to transformation is predictable, yet ill-aimed. Meyer, of course, isn’t the first national coach to be unfairly targeted on this front. His predecessors Jake White and Peter de Villiers also came in for criticism after selecting a national team that wasn’t reflective of the country’s demographics.
Of course, the reality is there aren’t enough black players making the transition from junior to senior rugby in South Africa. There aren’t enough black players involved, and excelling, at Super Rugby level.
Criticism should be aimed at those responsible for recruiting and grooming the next generation of black talent, and at a few provincial and Super Rugby coaches who aren't embracing the need for real transformation. If there is change at the lower levels, the national coach will have a greater pool of players from which to draw. At the moment, the pool of top black talent is little more than a puddle.
Meyer has done a lot of good in terms of the development of the Boks’ game plan and personnel over the past four years. To hand him a contract extension on the eve of the World Cup is the right decision.
It will not, as some fear, encourage complacency in the short- and long-term. On the contrary, it will ensure that the Boks continue to build in the years to come.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images