RYAN VREDE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, finds out how Heyneke Meyer aims to make the Bulls the world’s best domestic side again.
The Bulls’ dynasty is over. For now.
An era of unprecedented success – a nine-year period where they won six Currie Cup titles in eight attempts (one shared) and three Super Rugby crowns – now gives way to a time of rebuilding.
This is primarily (although not exclusively) due to the crippling effect of departures, mostly of senior players. In a mass exodus, one that includes the loss of eight Springboks and a handful of extremely competent squad players who ensured strength in depth, the Bulls were significantly compromised. It is the experience of the departed they will miss the most. With Victor Matfield, Gary Botha, Fourie du Preez, Danie Rossouw, Gurthrö Steenkamp and Bakkies Botha retiring or seeking fresh challenges in Europe and Japan, they have lost 581 Super Rugby caps in addition to a wealth of Test experience (the sextet are all World Cup winners). Their absence will be felt most deeply in high-pressure situations.
In the likes of Matfield and Botha, 34 and 32 years old respectively, they had a second-row duo whose powers were patently waning. Still, even in the twilight of their careers they were among the best in their positions in world rugby.
Then there are those who still had much to offer, like Fourie du Preez (29), Steenkamp (30) and Rossouw, who despite being 32 has in recent years been a consistently good performer. Furthermore his positional versatility (he is able to cover lock, flank and No 8 with similarly high degrees of competence) is a rare and invaluable asset in a squad.
Following shoulder surgery in mid-2011, Du Preez struggled to impose his will on the opposition as readily as he had when at his best. Yet it is likely that he would have rediscovered the skill and tactical sharpness that for years marked him as the pre-eminent scrumhalf on the planet. But sushi will take precedence over prime steak at supper time, Du Preez opting to continue his career with the Suntory Sungoliath in Japan. He, above all others, is the loss the Bulls will lament most deeply, even though they have a prodigiously gifted successor in Francois Hougaard. In addition, from a leadership and tactical perspective, his and Matfield’s exit compounds their pain, as the twosome were heavily involved in the formulation and effective implementation of game plans. It is imperative that the players quickly progress beyond the psychological comfort Matfield and Du Preez elicited.
Certainly the Bulls’ position cannot be likened to the one they found themselves in in 2002, when the union was in turmoil and their ambition was being undermined by mediocrity on and off the field of play. Rectifying those flaws and steering the Bulls towards the success they subsequently achieved required a dramatic overhaul, primarily with regard to the playing structures, recruitment processes and culture. It is an area the Bulls’ director of rugby Heyneke Meyer, who is tasked with spearheading their drive into a new era of success, has put an intense focus on.
‘When I took over [as Bulls coach] in 2002 I was criticised for cutting 12 Springboks from our squad because I felt they didn’t fit into the team culture I wanted to foster,’ Meyer says. ‘This happened again recently, where some players had to go and be replaced by youngsters willing to embrace the culture I envisage – one of an unmatched work ethic and team above the individual. I felt that had gone away since I was last involved at the Bulls [Meyer was appointed to his current role after last coaching the Bulls to the Super 14 title in 2007]. That is something I’m ruthless about. Some of the players who were not granted contract extensions had gotten bigger than the union and I wouldn’t have that.’
Their recruiting has been purposeful and designed to ensure that there are successors of a high calibre when senior players succumb to the lure of foreign leagues, retire or endure torrid form. Hougaard is a prime example. It is a quality that will ensure they aren’t blown away in the holding years that lie before them, and the one that should make them title contenders in due course.
Recently some positional holes have been filled this way, the most notable being through the acquisition of the highly-rated midfielder Johann Sadie from Western Province. How Sadie responds in a new environment will be telling to the Bulls’ cause and his aptitude for Super Rugby will be tested in a way it never was as a bit-part player for the Cape union. It is certain that he will grow technically under the tutelage of the coaching staff, but the measure of the man will be how he negotiates the mental challenges that will mark his journey.
The famed Bulls’ junior structures will further supplement losses. The likes of centre Francois Venter and loose forward Arno Botha are treasured at the union and are seen as future Springboks. They will be blooded slowly but purposefully, with the intention of not compromising their ability to realise their immense potential.
Luck, science, timing and instinct combined in equal measure in uncovering Matfield, Du Preez, Botha and Bryan Habana and to a lesser degree Morné Steyn, Wynand Olivier and Pierre Spies. The plan is to have those characteristics conspire again to unveil an equally potent generation and in so doing lay the foundation for another era of dominance. That said, Meyer has little time for talk of hope in this regard.
‘We can’t hope that the players we have brought in and will bring in will succeed. We have to have some degree of certainty. I’ve been trying to improve our ability to achieve this by travelling to the USA to meet with top gridiron scouts and see what methods they have of identifying players who’ll make the cut. Obviously technical ability still ranks highest as a criterion, but there is also a huge emphasis on mental toughness. There are tests designed to measure that trait in a young player that I want to adapt for our purposes.
‘I also visited the US Military Academy at West Point [the world’s leading military university] where I interviewed soldiers and leaders who have been on the frontline in Iraq and Afghanistan to see how they deal with the huge mental pressure associated with being in battle situations. It’s mental toughness that will win you the close games and that’s what I want to define my players.’
Bulls high-performance manager Ian Schwartz has worked closely with Meyer and the coaching staff on the recruitment of players for the bulk of his 11 years at the union, brokering the deals that have brought some of the country’s best talents (established and schoolboy) to Pretoria and indeed negotiated the retention of the region’s best young talent. He is optimistic about the future.
‘Firstly, when we recruit players for our Super Rugby squad from other unions we do so only if we believe they have the capacity to become Springboks,’ he says. ‘Johann Sadie and [former WP wing] JJ Engelbrecht are prime examples of that criteria. It has worked for us in the past if you look at Zane Kirchner, Bjorn Basson, Flip van der Merwe and others. It is important that players who come here have Test potential because that ensures we compete at a high level and don’t fall away like we would have in a situation like we just went through with so many senior players leaving.
‘We also believe we sign the best schoolboy talent every year. We look for four primary criteria when signing a schoolboy – he must have exceptional talent, that is, an ability that surpasses his piers in his position, and be big, strong and quick. The fifth criteria can only be established once the player is with us – mental toughness.
‘Some of those types of signings are coming through now. They may not be ready for Super Rugby just yet, but the fact that our U19 and U21 sides made the finals of their domestic competitions [the U21s won] indicates there is a wealth of talent at our disposal. Not all of those players will contest for Super Rugby places, but we only need three or four outstanding ones and we’re in a position of strength. Arno Botha and Francois Venter are the first of those to come through of the new crop. There will be others in the near future.’
Meyer adds that they have to resist the temptation to speak longingly of the past.
‘People said there would never be another Joost [van der Westhuizen] and then Fourie came along. I hear people saying similar things about Victor now. I don’t believe that.
‘It is our goal to continue to deliver players of that calibre consistently. With all due respect to the greats who have moved on, I’ve already seen things in some of our young players here that surpass what they had at a similar age. I’m excited by players like Francois, Arno and [flank] Jean Cook. There are others with the ability to go all the way.’
One of the challenges will be to ensure that the core group of players identified to take the team back to the summit of the southern hemisphere and recapture national dominance are retained in the rebuilding phase.
Meyer sold Matfield, Du Preez and co on his vision in the early 2000s and that vision was enticing enough for those players to resist the advances of local rivals and big-spending foreign outfits. Meyer has again cast that vision and he and Schwartz will endeavour to secure the short-term futures of the likes of Hougaard, Sadie, Venter, Botha, Morné Steyn and Pierre Spies in the face of what is sure to be stern competition for their services in the coming years.
‘The players, coaches and management are fully aware of what we’re looking to achieve here. We want to be the best domestic team in world rugby again. We don’t want to be reflecting on the success of past teams. We aim to create new memories across all our sides, not just the Super Rugby and Currie Cup ones. That is the vision, but the outworking will be difficult as we need to evolve. The leading franchises are all on a similar level in terms of their professionalism, so you aren’t going to gain an edge by having a better game plan, for example. That edge will come in the players knowing exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing, the culture I spoke about already and improving our structures by first identifying the best people for those structures, then improving the people within those structures.’
So what are realistic expectations and acceptable standards, given where they stand at present?
‘Look, not qualifying for the Currie Cup semi-finals wasn’t acceptable, even though we fielded a young side with a view to getting some of them ready for Super Rugby,’ Meyer says. ‘We will never tolerate mediocrity and there’s enough talent in our group to ensure that we are very competitive. But even though I have a clear idea in my mind about the time frame I expect to see results in, I never share that with players and coaches. That limits their thinking. For example, when I first started coaching the senior side, I expected to win the Currie Cup in year three of my plan. We won it in year two. I guarantee you that if I’d told my players and coaches that plan they wouldn’t have been as urgent as they were. That said, in a results-driven game you don’t have a lot of breathing space. We have to get it right as quickly as possible and I believe it won’t be long before we start achieving our goals.’
– This article first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine.