Heyneke Meyer’s travels to the Super Rugby franchises have kick-started significant changes that will aid the Springboks in their quest for the World Cup. JON CARDINELLI reports.
‘This is a massive step forward,’ the Bok coach tells me. Meyer had just finished meeting with Sharks director of rugby Jake White and Sharks CEO John Smit on Tuesday. The meeting was the last in a series of discussions with coaches and stakeholders at the six South African franchises; a mission that has seen Meyer bouncing from one side of the country to the other for more than a month.
In an exclusive interview with SARugbymag.co.za, Meyer explains why it has been a resounding success.
The last time I spoke to Meyer, we were sitting in the lobby of a plush Parisian hotel. The Boks had just beaten France 19-10 to finish their European tour undefeated, and yet Meyer was far from satisfied.
As he reflected on the 2013 season as a whole, he mentioned why the two losses to the All Blacks were especially gutting. ‘We need to get fitter,’ he said at the time, highlighting the All Blacks’ superior conditioning in that heart-stopping Rugby Championship clash at Ellis Park on 5 October.
Meyer explained that the Boks would continue to struggle unless he and his coaching staff improved their working relationship with the Super Rugby franchises. He was adamant that the Boks could surpass the All Blacks in 2014 if the Super Rugby coaches bought into his vision for a stronger, and mutually beneficial, system.
Two months on, and Meyer’s wish has been granted. The coaches have taken his input to heart, and have reciprocated with contributions of their own.
‘I’m over the moon with the reaction,’ Meyer told SARugbymag.co.za. ‘It’s been a terrific experience and I think, more than anything, everybody realises that the World Cup is now only a year away. We need to get this right. It’s great that they are supporting us.’
The Boks won 10 Tests in 2013 and improved in terms of their all-round performance. They managed to improve their attack as well as their breakdown approach and are now looking to share tactics and information with the South African teams competing in Super Rugby.
‘It’s been a terrific experience and I think, more than anything, everybody realises that the World Cup is now only a year away'
Meyer admits that he has also learned a lot from this experience, particularly from his recent meeting with White, a former Bok coach.
‘Jake’s always been a good rugby man and a knowledgeable coach and I was keen to hear what he had to say, especially with regards to what he learned when he was overseas [at the Brumbies]. It’s great that we are able to share this information for the good of South African rugby.’
In 2007, Meyer coached the Bulls when White was at the helm of the Boks. He understands all too well that a South African Super Rugby coach has to put his own team first.
Having said that, success in Super Rugby can be transferred to the Test stage. The Bulls beat the Sharks in the 2007 Super 14 final, and many of the players involved in that game would go on to form the core of White’s World Cup squad.
Having spoken to White and the other coaches at length, Meyer is pleased to report that some of his requests have been met.
It is hoped that a change to the conditioning regime will not only see the players improving their performance in Super Rugby, but during the Test season as well. After all, Meyer won’t have time to condition those selected for the Boks when they gather for the June Tests. That process must start in the pre-season, and while the players are with their franchises.
‘Last year, there was an emphasis on improving at the breakdown. This year, there are three areas in which we need to improve, namely conditioning, tactical kicking, and discipline,’ said Meyer.
‘I first mentioned this to the coaches at the end of last year. And over the past month, I have noticed a big improvement in the players’ conditioning. I’d go so far to say that this group of South African players is in great condition, the best I’ve ever seen at this stage of the season.
‘There’s been an adjustment to the way players are conditioned, and already the body-fat percentage of the players has come down. There’s been a move to functional fitness. I said at the end of last year that conditioning was a concern, and I’m happy that we are starting to get that right.’
'This group of South African players is in great condition, the best I’ve ever seen at this stage of the season'
The Super Rugby franchises have also benefited from the input of the Bok coaching staff. Consultant Richie Gray made a significant difference to the Boks' breakdown approach in 2013, and will work with some of the Super Rugby teams this season. Again, this is a move that will benefit both franchise and country.
‘What the past few weeks have been about is sharing information and ensuring that we are working together to take South African rugby to the top,’ said Meyer. ‘I want to see players improving, and ultimately I want to see South African teams doing well, to be winning overseas as much as possible. That always makes it easier when the Boks travel [to Australasia] later in the year.’
The Bok coach confirmed that the lines of communication between himself and the coaches will remain open throughout the Super Rugby competition. Meyer will not prescribe what the coaches can or cannot do, but there will be room for suggestion. It's encouraging to know that all parties are working towards a common goal.
Photo: Jason Oxenham/Getty Images