Springboks in rude health

Heyneke Meyer’s job is far from complete but he has allowed every South African supporter to believe anything and everything is possible, writes MARK KEOHANE.

Springbok rugby is healthy. South African rugby’s diagnosis is not as comforting. Don’t confuse the two as being the same thing. Both are also businesses for those actively involved. The paying supporter and the passionate South African rugby fan rightly views the game as a sport and the national team as the most important extension of the game.

Those who are concerned with the state of the domestic game in South Africa (Currie Cup and Super Rugby) argue that foreign-based players should not be selected for the Springboks. There is a misguided belief that players would turn down overseas offers in the name of supposed loyalty to the Springbok jersey. What nonsense. Why would a player, who can demand a €1-million contract turn it down for a R1-million South African contract? Why must a player be punished for excellence?

Loyalty, as a word, is misplaced when talking about a player’s decision to go overseas. ‘Chasing the cash … we don’t need those for whom money is everything and the Bok jersey means nothing …’ And so it goes, one ignorant comment after the other.

South African rugby, as a domestic game, will continue to be challenged and will be on a hiding to nothing because of a weak rand and a dominant euro market. There is a view that, ultimately, South African rugby, because of logistics, will be involved in European and English club/provincial structures, but that won’t happen for at least another five to 10 years.

The very good South African players will be lured overseas. When they go it will be a business decision in an industry where it can end with a twisted knee, as just one example. The good professionals, in any sport, are in demand internationally. South Africa’s best rugby players are no different.

South African rugby’s administration and the Super Rugby franchises and provinces must continue to look at ways of making playing in South Africa appealing and inviting. They must continue to support the national coach in allowing him to pick the best available South African team, regardless of where the player is based.

A year ago the talk was of an overseas-based player restriction and a quota of between two and five. That kind of talk should remain just talk because Meyer, as the Springbok coach, must be given everything possible to make the Springboks the best globally.

Meyer has been firm in his belief that good enough is old enough. He has tried to educate the rugby public on his selections. He has always said he would pick a locally-based player ahead of his overseas colleague on a 50/50 call. But also that he would always want to reward the best player with the honour and privilege of wearing the jersey, and that is why he pushed so hard to include those very good South African players who had opted for an overseas club contract.

Meyer did not speak of four-year World Cup cycle plans. In 2012 he did not speak of building for the 2015 World Cup. He spoke of a winning habit and of a culture based on strong values. He spoke about trying to get it right every Saturday and that hopefully one of those Saturdays would be the World Cup final.

Teams have lost World Cup finals with a last-minute drop goal. Meyer was quick to point out the fine line in World Cup reward and his motivation was to leave a legacy of sustained excellence.

Meyer, post his confirmation as Bok coach, said ideally he would have wanted Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield in his national squad. Du Preez, based in Japan, was unavailable for the Springboks because of the structuring of his club contract. After the 2011 RWC defeat against Australia Matfield retired. Meyer felt Matfield had left two seasons too soon. Matfield did not agree.

We now know the rest. Retirement did wonders for Matfield, whose international return was as captain in the Springboks’ 48-13 victory over a World XV at Newlands. Matfield, after consultation with Meyer, has timed his return perfectly. The two years so many felt still to be in Matfield’s legs were better counted down from the 2015 World Cup.

Meyer did not get back Du Preez and Matfield in that first year but he has them now, in what will be the most important year of the 2015 World Cup cycle.

From the moment he was Bok coach, Meyer has emphasised the need to try to win every Test match. The more the team wins, the greater the culture, the easier the environment and the higher the prospects of getting it right at the 2015 RWC. But the Bok coach was never going to build a four-year plan around a lottery game or two, which is about the only way to describe the World Cup play-offs.

I believe the Boks are good enough to win the World Cup, but then so are New Zealand, England and possibly Australia. But no coach should be judged exclusively on the potential of winning those play-off games and given the escape of not winning regularly. Meyer wanted his team to understand the importance of winning every time they put on the jersey.

He did not want excuses like Test match experimentation in the name of the World Cup plan. It was called Test rugby because it provided the greatest test for players and coaches. Springbok rugby was not as revered as that of the All Blacks, but it was not because of an inferior player base. Meyer said the All Blacks had earned the right to be called the best because of their consistency in getting results over a sustained period. He challenged his players to search for this excellence and consistency, as individuals and as a team. 

Meyer invested in rugby principles and not in the sales of public relations gurus. He did not try to trick the rugby public. He did not try to embarrass the rugby media or compromise his philosophy because of a fear of the media. He did not commit to the Springboks being a running or kicking team. He did not believe in such labels. He wanted his teams to be remembered as winners who played intelligent rugby. He said the game was simple if respect was shown to the basics of the game. No team could be successful without a forward foundation, defence, an accurate goal-kicker and a framework that guided more than restricted any intelligent approach.

Then there was the conditioning of the squad. Fitness and conditioning, as with 1995 World Cup-winning coach Kitch Christie and the 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White, was non-negotiable.

Meyer is into his third year and the challenge is to beat the All Blacks. It’s the only box he has yet to tick. The Boks should have won in Dunedin in 2012, but Morné Steyn had a rare goal-kicking nightmare and in 2013 the Boks were denied the chance of a contest because of Bismarck du Plessis’ 43rd-minute sending-off.

The irony is how easily the All Blacks won at altitude against the Boks in 2012 and 2013. Meyer felt his Springboks had become mentally stronger but he was still not content with their conditioning. It was the primary reason the All Blacks had been successful against the Boks in South Africa. He also felt New Zealand’s line-kicking and tactical kicking game was the best in the world in 2012 and 2013.

There was no magic formula to being No 1. It required honesty about performance, a refusal to compromise on the game’s basics and the players to be loyal to their talents by putting in the necessary work.

Meyer also believes loyalty to the Bok jersey comes in how the player respects the privilege of competing for the right to wear the match jersey. Loyalty comes in performance and not in geographical location. In 2012 Meyer promised his initial Bok squad loyalty if they produced the results. He felt he had identified the right players to win regularly. He also said Test selection was not about being charitable.

Meyer’s 2014 Springbok squad is an improvement in depth and quality on his original 2012 selections, but the core of the players identified remains in the squad. This, said the coach, is because of the players’ performance and not because of a conservative selection approach.

The Springboks have won in excess of 70% of their games in the past three years and Meyer wants his legacy to be of a Springbok squad that won between 75 and 80%. It is why he is likely to be the first Springbok coach in the professional era to be reappointed for a second successive World Cup cycle. It is an open secret the reappointment will be confirmed before the 2015 season and with no conditions attached to the Springboks winning the World Cup.

This on its own would command talk of a Springbok coaching legacy. In the interim Meyer prefers to talk about winning every Saturday and investing in the players who have given him those victories nearly every Saturday.

– This first appeared in Business Day Sport Monthly

Photo: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix