Astute analyst

RYAN VREDE talks to Heyneke Meyer about how Super Rugby will shorten players’ careers and why he believes the Boks have a good chance of defending the World Cup.

There has been a lot of conjecture about the effect the elongated Super Rugby schedule will have on a player’s longevity. What are your thoughts?
I foresee a player’s career being cut by three to five years as a result of the physical demands of Super Rugby. Elite players are in even more danger of chronic fatigue and serious injury because they will also play in Tests, including an expanded Tri-Nations [from 2012]. It will undoubtedly dilute the quality of rugby in the southern hemisphere because players can’t deliver optimal performances consistently under those conditions.

What strategy do you predict Super Rugby teams will employ to attempt to circumvent the demands of a long tournament?
Squad depth is going to become even more crucial. However, to build depth you need a good feeder system in your juniors, as well as significant financial resources in order to contract players in positions you may be thin in. The latter poses a problem because the contracts of your elite players account for 80% of a franchise’s budget. So you have very little to work with for the remainder of your immediate squad, let alone any prospective recruits. You’ll probably see more youngsters playing Super Rugby in future. These days they tend to come out of school physically ready to compete at a senior level, but they will struggle to have long careers if they are exposed to regular Super Rugby at that age. It’s a fine balance and the teams that get it right will stand more chance of being successful.

What trends have you seen in the game of late?
Last year, because the law interpretations at the breakdown were new, referees were policing that area far more vigilantly. The attacking team was heavily favoured and teams that could keep the ball through multiple phases thrived. Defending teams struggled to turn over possession, and only the smartest openside flankers were a factor as a result. There was so much quick ball, but that isn’t the case any longer – it’s a contest again. It’s also a key reason the Stormers performed as well as they did. They competed brilliantly at the breakdown and were able to set their defensive line, making it very, very difficult to breach them. This trend has placed an added importance on tactical kicking, and when you look at the ingredients that will improve a team’s chances of being successful at the World Cup – tactical kicking, solid defence and a strong ruck contest – the Springboks tick all the boxes. I had reservations about our ability to play the multi-phase, high-tempo game that the rules encouraged. But, having seen this trend develop, I’m more optimistic.

The issue of how players should be managed in the Tri-Nations has polarised opinion. Where do you stand?
It’s important for us to back the strategy the Springboks have adopted in this regard [to rest most of their first-choice players for the away leg of the Tri-Nations]. Peter [de Villiers] and the team deserve all our support. But my opinion on the matter is that while the resting of senior players in the 2007 Tri-Nations was hailed as a success, we didn’t have to limit our thinking in this way. There’s more than one route to success, although I fully understand the rationale behind wanting to rest players. I just see massive value in the group playing together, given how soon the Boks’ pool matches start after their Tri-Nations campaign [22 days]. I would place a huge premium on beating the All Blacks in New Zealand just a couple of weeks before the World Cup will be held there. The psychological lift that would give the players would be invaluable, particularly if they face the All Blacks in the play-off stages. Defeat wouldn’t be a tragedy because all the pressure will be on them in a play-off situation.

Some of the Bulls’ Springboks haven’t played regularly because of injuries. There are concerns about how their lack of game time will impact the Springboks at the World Cup. Do you share those concerns?
No. Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and Pierre Spies started slowly because they all had operations in the off-season and were recovering. This limited their pre-season preparation and the consequences of that were seen in the early rounds of Super Rugby where they started slowly. But they’ve all improved gradually and the Boks will get the best of them at the World Cup, especially Fourie and Bakkies – who’ve played less than Pierre – if they can stay fit.

The Bulls will lose a host of senior players after the World Cup. What is a realistic outlook in the coming years for the union?
You must remember that players like Fourie, Bakkies and Victor [Matfield] are the best in their positions in the world. You rarely find two players like that in one team. We’ve been blessed with three. Then others like Gurthrö Steenkamp and Gary Botha are high-class players who will also be sorely missed. There is no question that their absence will have a telling effect. We have some talented youngsters at the union who will develop into fine players in the coming years. But that process will take time. It is important that the senior players who stay on at the Bulls step up now. We won’t tolerate a significant drop in standards because the players we have at our disposal are still of a very high calibre.

You expressed reservations about Chiliboy Ralepelle’s elevation to the Test side in 2006, believing it to be premature.He then went on to struggle with injuries and, when fit, seldom played regularly for the Springboks. But he has impressed this season. As a known supporter of his, this must be encouraging.
Absolutely. Chiliboy has been through a helluva lot for one so young and he is starting to show glimpses of the player I believe he can be. If he is managed properly, and by that I mean given sufficient game time, he has the potential to develop into a great player.

Your old student Bryan Habana has struggled for form for some time now. What do you think is the problem?
Bryan is a class player and mentally tough, so I wouldn’t write him off just yet. Also, it’s not my place to comment on him because I don’t know the full picture – what’s happening in his personal life and so on. But generally when players struggle like he is, it’s like being stuck in quicksand. The more you try to escape, the deeper you sink. I’ve seen it happen to many players. The ones I’ve seen recover from those situations have done so when they’ve rediscovered a natural enjoyment of the game again. How he gets to that point is for him and his coaches to determine.

Which players outside the established Springboks impressed you in Super Rugby this year?
I rate [Stormers centre-wing] Johann Sadie highly. He is a brilliant, brilliant young player. He is quick, strong relative to his size, runs beautiful lines and plays without any apparent fear of failure. He, for me, would add value to the World Cup squad. He could play centre or wing, and with a safety net in a squad of experienced guys, playing him isn’t a gamble. [Shortly after this interview with Meyer, Sadie signed a two-year contract with the Bulls.] Frans Steyn thrived in that environment in 2007. Sadie could do the same. I’d also find a place for Adriaan Strauss [who Meyer coached at the Bulls]. He is playing the best rugby of his career. Every week I watch him I’m always impressed with his technical ability and work rate, which is second to none in the group of South African hookers.

Some prominent coaches and analysts have derided the hype surrounding New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, saying that he will be found out in due course. What are your impressions of him?
I don’t share those views. In fact, I think he is a special, special player. The suggestion that he is a one-trick pony is flawed. You only need to have watched him closely to know this. His offload ability in contact is exceptional, it’s a match-winning skill. But he also offers you a powerful ball-carrying option, and rarely doesn’t dominate the collisions when he does so. Playing in tandem with Dan Carter will elevate the All Blacks’ threat because they will just have so many attacking options. Carter is a handful on his own as it is. You just never know what he is going to do – a show-and-go, run, pass or kick – now you have to contend with the prospect of him passing to Williams, who has so many weapons in his arsenal. They have the potential to develop into the best 10-12 combination of all time.

The Bok coaching job is expected to be on offer later this year. Have you considered applying for  it once again after a failed bid in 2007?
It would be an honour, but my immediate feeling is that my time has come and gone. I would love to have coached the current group, but it wasn’t to be. I believe in establishing structures for sustained success. That is difficult to do in the results-driven environment of Test rugby. Perhaps my skill set would be better utilised in a different role? I don’t know, and I’m not dismissing the possibility of applying for the job. Time may alter my view.

– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine. The September issue – a 260-page World Cup special – will be on sale from 24 August.