RYAN VREDE examines the 10 primary challenges Heyneke Meyer will face as coach of the Springboks.
Meyer is set to be unveiled in the role on Friday, and with it comes a myriad challenges. These are the ones, in no particular order, that he will have to master.
I’ve been consistent in my view that transformation is largely the responsibility of the provincial and franchise coaches, but as Springboks chief Meyer cannot be completely mitigated from responsibility in this regard. There will be a string of gifted, young black players at his disposal, among them Juan de Jongh, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Lwazi Mvovo, Bjorn Basson, Gio Aplon and Elton Jantjies, as well as a clutch of junior internationals who’ll rise to prominence during his tenure. How he fares in this facet of his job will be central to how he is measured.
NEGOTIATING THE POLITICAL MINEFIELD
Immense political pressure will accompany the expectation for greater transformation at national level. Meyer’s predecessor Peter de Villiers was largely and curiously spared a grilling for his commitment to a mostly white match 22 for the duration of his tenure. Meyer, an Afrikaner, won’t be afforded such breathing room.
PICKING THE RIGHT ASSISTANTS
In Gary Gold, De Villiers selected a forwards coach with good technical and tactical skills and an unrelenting work ethic. He erred in his pick of back coach, Dick Muir, whose fanciful ideas and philosophies were never going to be effective at Test level. Muir would become a well paid ornament by the end of his stint, with the senior players deciding the attacking strategy. Meyer will have to be astute with his selections, installing men with high levels of skill and competency, innovation, experience, credibility and solid work ethics. There are no outstanding candidates. Meyer has a good relationship with Rassie Erasmus and could turn to him. Expect Victor Matfield to be used as a consultant at some stage, although his coaching inexperience could preclude him for consideration for the forward coach gig. Meyer was also never afraid to look abroad in a bid to improve the Bulls, with a number of foreign consultants sharing their expertise at Loftus during his reign. Backline coach Todd Louden made a marked impression on their attacking play in 2007 and it not beyond reason that Meyer could look to him, or a foreigner of his ilk, to assist him. There is, however, likely to be resistance to this idea…
MEDDLING OF PRESIDENT’S COUNCIL
The suits on the gravy train at the South African Rugby Union have a reputation for killing the soul of national coaches and at some point are bound to impose their unique brand of incompetence on Meyer. He was given a wide berth at the Bulls in his bid to build the world’s best franchise, often travelling abroad to study the tactics, techniques, conditioning methods and recruiting strategies of various sporting codes. Whether these amateurs will rubber stamp Meyer’s progressive plans remains to be seen.
SELECTING A CAPTAIN
John Smit was the outstanding candidate for the job in 2004 but Meyer isn’t in a similarly privileged position. Schalk Burger seems a good fit, but Meyer could well opt for a player he knows and trusts. In discussions with me he has consistently spoken of the leadership credentials of Pierre Spies. Indeed he was central to the decision to appoint him captain of the Bulls.
The selection of foreign-based players was a contentious one under De Villiers, who initially refused to consider them but later softened that stance. I haven’t yet established Meyer’s position on this issue, but would hope that he doesn’t share De Villiers’ outdated view and consider a number of men who could add great value to a Springboks squad.
ADVANCING THEIR GAME PLAN
Expect pragmatism to take precedence over panache with the Meyer-coached Springboks. He believes the breakdown laws don’t promote ball retention through multiple phases in your territory and that this dictates you play down in the opposition’s half through tactical kicking, then seek to force them into errors through organised and punishing defence. Sound familiar? It was the strategy the Springboks of 2009 through 2011 employed with varying degrees of success. Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez – disciples of Meyer’s philosophies – drove that process. When employed accurately it is very difficult to counter, but failure to do so will result in the defensive line being exposed. There also needs to be another dimension added to their attacking play in opposition territory. He has the players to shape a formidable attacking force.
Under De Villiers the Springboks won 71% of their home Tests. However that figure is improved by victories over weakened northern hemisphere sides in incoming tour matches. They lost five of 11 Tri-Nations Tests between 2008 and 2011, including being blanked by the All Blacks at Newlands in 2008. Meyer needs to forge his Springboks side into a side who are extremely difficult to beat on home soil, maintaining at least an 80% plus win record in the Republic.
The Springboks won nine of 23 away Tests on De Villiers’ watch and just two of 11 in the Tri-Nations. This is an unacceptable return for a side packed with with world-class talent. Meyer consistently stressed the importance of winning on the road when coach of the Bulls and placed an intense focus on uncovering and remedying the reasons why they had struggled to do so. In 2007 they won three from five on the Super Rugby tour and could have come home with a clean sweep. Here’s hoping he has similar success at national level.
With an extended Super Rugby and Rugby Championship format, it is essential that Meyer reaches some consensus with franchises about the game time of their elite players. This has proven near impossible in the past, with franchise coaches understandably concerned primarily with fielding their strongest combinations as often as possible. I don’t see this situation improving.