Remove the emotion and the facts tell you Heyneke Meyer wasn’t good enough over a four-year period and shouldn’t be reappointed as Springbok coach, writes MARK KEOHANE in Sport Monthly magazine.
This isn’t personal; it’s professional. This isn’t about provincialism; it’s professional. This isn’t about culture or race; it’s professional; it’s about the job and the ability to deliver.
Heyneke Meyer, in his capacity as a professional rugby coach, would have said this many times to players, administrators, the rugby media and the rugby public. He would have told the player he had made the squad because of performance. Equally, he would have told the dropped player it was because of lack of performance.
‘It’s not personal; it’s professional.’
In 2012 Meyer was appointed Springbok coach and given four years to improve the national squad’s results. He was to transform the makeup of the national side and nurture a style that would win big Tests, especially against the 2011 world champions New Zealand. He was to develop a squad that in four years would be good enough to be No 1 in the world and have the Rugby Championship and World Cup titles as confirmation of that ranking having been gained through consistency in winning Tests.
Meyer’s predecessor Peter de Villiers was not offered a contract extension after the Boks lost 11-9 to Australia in the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals. The World Cup result simply wasn’t good enough. De Villiers was accused of compromising on transformation ideals and a more attack-orientated ball-in-hand playing style.
I, for one, endorsed the closure of De Villiers’ four-year tenure. I described it as the ‘End of an Error’ and felt that, with the quality of players and the core of the 2007 World Cup-winning squad, he should have achieved better results.
I wrote that De Villiers was not the right appointment to succeed 2007 World Cup winner Jake White. My criticism of De Villiers was not personal but aimed at his professional coaching CV. I didn’t think he was good enough to add to the legacy of a special group of players who had already won a World Cup and were young enough to play in another two World Cup tournaments.
I trumpeted Meyer’s appointmentas a coach with a professional coaching track record that had known hardship and success. I felt he would restore integrity and calm to the Boks. De Villiers was more jester than royalty.
De Villiers’ supporters accused me of racism. They refused to assess the World Cup failure and the year that preceded the World Cup when the Boks were in disarray, results were poor, selections were inconsistent and very little was working.
They reminded me that De Villiers had won three Tests in succession against New Zealand in 2009 and had won two successive Tests against the All Blacks in New Zealand. Those who supported him also argued that his Boks had won the (then) Tri-Nations, had put 40 points past England at Twickenham and had won a series against the British & Irish Lions.
The counter was that, on rugby balance, De Villiers had failed. His team had lost eight times from 12 to Australia, including twice in successive years in South Africa. The All Blacks had also won three successive Tests in 2010 against the Springboks and the criticism of the De Villiers era was that senior players were more dominant in leadership than the coach and that he, as a rugby coach, tactician and selector, had not advanced the 2007 world champions.
De Villiers had also not significantly progressed transformation or the belief that having a black coach immediately transformed the mindset within the Bok squad or black playing numbers.
His Bok coaching tenure ended with a World Cup quarter-final defeat to Australia. The Boks lost by two points to a late penalty and New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence was blamed for cheating the Boks out of a win.
De Villiers, like so many South Africans, maintained the Boks would have won the World Cup had it not been for Lawrence. Forget that they had to still get past hosts New Zealand at Eden Park, which was a venue at which the Boks had last won in 1937 and where no team had beaten the All Blacks since 1994.
The rugby performance of the Boks in that quarter-final wasn’t good enough. On three different occasions, players botched clear try-scoring opportunities, the playing style wasn’t good enough to consistently trouble the Wallabies and South Africa again relied on massive defence and mauling to physically impose themselves on the opposition and force a winning result through defensive strangulation.
Then there was the small matter of South Africa rightly being penalised from a lineout infringement with less than 10 minutes to play and James O’Connor actually having to kick the difficult angled 40m penalty.
Lawrence was awful, as Wayne Barnes had been to New Zealand in the 20-18 quarter-final defeat against France in 2007, but Lawrence wasn’t the reason the Boks lost. The buildup to the World Cup had been poor and inadequate. Selections were as inconsistent as the contradictions from the coach were consistent.
De Villiers, in my view, was rightly not reappointed. He wasn’t good enough by way of results to justify a contract extension. He could also not claim to have compromised short-term results for the greater result of a transformed Springbok team, or an advanced and more complete playing style.
Meyer was the obvious replacement in 2012, and on his appointment his words were a comfort. He spoke of a winning culture and of a team that spoke to all South Africans because the players were winners on and off the field. He spoke of developing good people as much as good rugby players. He spoke of integrity, honesty and professionalism. He wanted to do the people of South Africa proud and he wanted them to be proud of him and his players because they were winners and they set the standard internationally.
When questioned on his preferred style of play, Meyer said winning rugby was the one he favoured. The professional game was about results. It was about winning Tests and titles, with the biggest of them being the World Cup, which was played every four years.
Meyer was critical of a mindset within South Africa rugby (from supporters, players, administrators, the public and within the rugby media) that mediocrity could be excused during the four-year cycle because of the potential to win the World Cup. He said a World Cup result should not be the defining measure of his tenure, although he believed he would take a squad to England in 2015 good enough to win the tournament and not simply be hopeful of being crowned champions.
Meyer preached the importance of winning every weekend because he said teams with a winning habit invariably had a mental advantage when it came to those title-defining moments in play-off games. He spoke of having balance in attack and defence, of a strong set piece but with players skilled enough to use the ball. He spoke of being able to win away from home and of never losing at home.
He said to be the best again, South Africa had to regularly beat the best, which was New Zealand. Meyer said all the right things and in his first two years he backed up the talk with a composed walk that had more substance than arrogant swagger.
In Meyer’s second year the Boks won 80% of their Tests, were strong in the set piece and scored tries. This was a team on the rise and the 38-27 defeat against the All Blacks at Ellis Park was memorable for the nine tries and for the attacking quality of both teams.
Meyer, in year two, preached perspective. He said he could never applaud a losing performance. He spoke of positives in scoring four tries against the All Blacks, but added that New Zealand had scored five. He felt the difference was again the conditioning of the players. New Zealand, in the last 10 minutes, were still as strong as they were in the first 10 minutes. The Boks were finished in those last 10 minutes. The Boks had also enjoyed a one-man advantage for 20 of the 80 minutes and they had lost at Ellis Park to the All Blacks, who historically had won only three from 11 at the ground.
Meyer’s Boks played the All Blacks in Johannesburg in four successive years and the match pattern was exactly the same on each occasion, bar one. South Africa, passionate and buoyed by a fanatical home crowd, played with intensity and pace for an hour. They would always score early and at times have a two-score advantage.
The Twickenham defeat, despite the two-point difference, was no different to the defeats against the All Blacks in Johannesburg. Meyer’s Boks were within a converted try of the All Blacks in a couple of games, but in the context of the result they were always second. The gap hadn’t been narrowed but merely reinforced.
Meyer asked to be judged on his results. They simply haven’t been good enough over four years, especially in the World Cup year. After the World Cup defeat he defended his honour and his integrity in an emotional interview in Rapport newspaper.
He described his love for the country, his belief in the country, his joy and pride in being a South African and his passion for the Springboks and for serving the sport in this country as national coach. He defended the failed World Cup campaign, praised his coaching staff and the efforts of the players, and insisted his Boks were a kick away from beating the All Blacks and winning the World Cup.
The interview did not make for good reading if you wanted convincing Meyer was still the right guy to continue as Bok coach, because his state of mind simply was too emotional to front the realism of the Springboks’ rugby return at the World Cup and in the past 18 months.
Results, said Meyer on his appointment in 2012, were all that mattered. There were no prizes for coming second and no one cared about who came second, whether it was by a point or by 50.
Meyer’s Boks in 2015 at Twickenham were second to the All Blacks and a distant second to his 2012 rhetoric of what makes a champion team.
His love for the Springboks and for South Africa is not the issue. It never has been. The attacks on his persona, on social media and in the mainstream media have been in poor taste, disgusting and without merit. Focus on the rugby.
Meyer’s reappointment is not about what he or the public want in relation to likeability as a Bok coach. It’s about his ability as a coach to get to an 80% win record that includes winning titles.
Meyer’s review has to extend past the World Cup performance. He asked to be judged over 48 Tests and on the winning of matches and titles. He has asked to be judged as a rugby coach; just as his predecessor De Villiers had asked. Reappointing him would be reinforcing mediocrity. It would be reward for coming second and for not winning any titles in four years.
Don’t make the reappointment about the persona, passion or popularity. Look at the return. Meyer, like De Villiers, simply was not good enough; not at Twickenham and not over four years.
2012 = 66%
2013 = 83.3%
2014 = 69.2%
2015 = 54%
Overall = 68%
BOKS FROM 2012-2015
vs (No 1) All Blacks 1/8 = 12.5%
vs (No 2) Wallabies 4/7 = 57.1%
vs All Blacks & Wallabies 5/15 = 33%
RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP (overall)
vs All Blacks, Wallabies and Pumas
10/21 = 47.6%
RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP (at home)
7/11 = 63.6%
RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP (away)
3/10 = 30%
VS SIX NATIONS TEAMS
17/20 = 85%
Boks 143 tries in 48 Tests
All Blacks 209 tries in 54 Tests
– Meyer, in his first Test in charge, started with four black players: Zane Kirchner, JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana and Beast Mtawarira.
– In his 48th Test in charge, he started with three black players: Pietersen, Habana and Mtawarira.
BOKS' WINNING PERCENTAGE
Under Meyer: 68%
Since 1903: 66%
– This article first appeared in the December issue of Sport Monthly magazine