The most disappointing aspect of Heyneke Meyer's tenure as Springbok coach is that his team was a poor reflection of the man he actually is, writes RYAN VREDE.
I've worked with Meyer professionally since early 2006. At the time, he was in the process of building a Bulls team that would become one of the most successful in South African history. In the years that followed I'd speak to Meyer three or four times a week. We'd develop a close relationship that remains strong to this day.
It was a brilliant time in my career. I was a young journalist who'd grown bored of the media-speak peddled out by most players and coaches I'd interview. In Meyer I found a super subject. His intelligence, drive, insight and honesty was refreshing. I was taken by his work ethic and his desire to be the very best in his field. Most of all, I was struck by his sharp and progressive mind as it pertained to the game and grew evermore intrigued by it as our professional relationship developed.
The current version of Meyer is a poor impostor of the man who got the Springbok job. That is a tragedy of his tenure.
The Meyer who got the job was a tactically astute and fearless coach whose belief in his teams soared, even against the greatest odds. The Bulls' 92-3 victory over the Reds at Loftus in 2007 is testament to this. The Bulls had to win by 75 points to book a home semi-final against the Eddie Jones-headed team. In a masterstroke of coaching, Meyer arranged for the number 75 to be posted up on boards and flash on screens around the Loftus facility in the week leading up to the match. He effectively conditioned his players' minds and they responded with one of the great wins in Vodacom Super Rugby history.
He then engineered a demolition of the defending champion Crusaders in their semi-final and would orchestrate a dramatic last-gasp victory over a Springbok-laden Sharks team in the final. Meyer's legacy endured on and off the field long after he left the union later that year.
He should have got the Springbok job in 2008. Saru instead went with a transformation appointment in Peter de Villiers. Still, Meyer was in demand globally. He turned down Toulon's numerous approaches, then accepted a gig at Leicester and was building a special team before his wife's health concerns (among other reasons) prompted his return to South Africa. I'd speak to Meyer often about the state of Springbok rugby during this time and he was unfailingly supportive of De Villiers, while still offering views, especially on tactical and selection issues, that were considered and thought-provoking.
I was delighted when he was announced as the Springbok head coach in 2012. I felt like the country had gained one of the world's great rugby coaches, a man equally adept tactically as he was from a player management, selection and talent identification perspective.
This Meyer seems to have become completely consumed by the result of a Test match. His identity seems to have become dependent on it. Win and he feels like a winner. Lose and the converse is true. He has lost regularly during his time at the helm and I've watched a naturally jovial and charismatic man become a desperate and mostly joyless one. The man I know treated victory and defeat as the impostors they are. His appraisal of either result used to have perspective and was unfailingly honest. His analysis and response to a defeat, tactically, was usually spot on. Not so anymore.
When results started going south consistently Meyer retreated further and further into a pragmatic box. He is not a pragmatic thinker and certainly not a naturally pragmatic tactician. Lest we forget that his Bulls sides post-2006 were regularly among tournaments' top try-scorers. He has always been determined in his search for a competitive edge, even if it meant exploring methods of other sporting codes and adapting them, like he did when he spent time at NFL franchises in the USA.
At his core he is also not a pragmatic selector. He inherited a team of average senior players at the Bulls in his early days. He'd transform the union's fortunes off the back of the recruitment and selection of young and gifted players like Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Derick Hougaard, among a clutch of others. He used to be incredibly perceptive when it came to the continued value of veteran players, cutting them loose quickly if they were on the brink of becoming a liability, or adjusting their deployment in a manner that would benefit the team. Clearly his powers in this regard have waned.
This isn't a judgement, merely my observations. I can identify with Meyer's plight because, like most of us, he has shown himself to be prone to taking a safe path when navigating through high-pressure situations. The disappointing thing is that his career and legend has been built on bold decisions and sticking doggedly by his convictions. He did so before he was fired in the infancy of his professional career with the Bulls, and, when approached to return, made it clear that he would only accept the role if the board were invested in his plans, which were wonderfully ambitious and bore fruit in the most fantastic way.
I write this because I believe that Meyer hasn't died and if he is retained as coach of the Springboks I want the world to see the real him reflected in all aspects of his team. I want him to enjoy every minute of being in his dream job, partly because I like him as a man, but mostly because I'm confident that enjoyment will translate into a Springbok team that will make us smile.
Second chances to implement the lessons of one's errors aren't offered to most professionals if they have failed as dismally as Meyer has. If he does get another crack with the Boks, he owes the South African rugby fraternity the privilege of watching him work free of the shackles he has imprisoned himself with.
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