The Meyer blueprint
29 May 2012
MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, says the new Bok coach is looking for physical and mental toughness in a player.
Heyneke Meyer has never spoken of a new age in South African rugby. He hasn’t waxed lyrical about the romance of the game, about playing rugby the people want to see and he certainly hasn’t made a promise that this Springbok team will be one that dazzles with tries and loses in style.
His only constant has been that the only good team is a winning team; that people support a winning team and that the only age people remember is a winning one.
Meyer is the first Bok coach who on his appointment hasn’t looked for the escape of a four-year plan and already made the excuse that any hiccup in the first year will be part of the master plan to win the World Cup in England in 2015.
The Bok coach has asked us to read nothing into the first Test against England because his contribution will be negligible. The first Test, should it be successful for the Boks, will be because of the natural ability of the players and because of home advantage.
Meyer will have a week to work with players, many of whom he has never worked with before. There can be no assessment made of Meyer’s Boks before the end of the Rugby Championship in September. Only then will we see patterns, styles and trends with his Boks.
In that first Test it will be about survival and about getting a result. The rugby will be conservative, simple and whatever expression there is will be spur-of-the-moment stuff.
Individuals will sparkle but as a unit there will be nothing on show as Meyer merges several different regional and club cultures into a culture he is familiar with … one based on simplicity in approach, integrity among the players, management and respect for the game.
‘Players must know why they play the game,’ Meyer told me. ‘They must know why they want to play for South Africa. They must be committed to leaving a legacy. I don’t want players whose dream it is to be a Springbok. I want those who have always dreamed of being good … great … Springboks. I want players who want it; not because a coach, their moms and dads, the media or the public want it for them … but because they want it. Great players don’t have to be told to go the extra mile. They are great because they go the extra mile.’
Meyer, in the months preceding the series against England, showed his tenacity in getting all the regions to agree to a two-day release of their players for a national introduction session.
I know what an achievement this is because a decade ago I tried to co-ordinate a similar national session when working with Springbok coach Harry Viljoen.
The regions don’t give unconditional support to the national cause. In a World Cup year concessions are made but outside this the Springboks may as well be another regional opponent from Australia and New Zealand.
Meyer, in meeting with 103 players during the Super Rugby season, already has a victory no Bok coach has enjoyed.
I spoke to Meyer about the value of the sessions and he couldn’t emphasise the importance enough. He said it broke down so many preconceived ideas and allowed him access to a player without having to rely on the view of someone else. The players were given a brief introduction to Meyer, to the intended approach against England and to the management, but mostly Meyer was given valuable time listening to players he had never before engaged.
‘You coach against players and obviously you know them from them being Springboks and you have a view on the way they play, but it makes such a difference when you get that chance to speak with them, to ask them questions and to hear what they have to say about the game, the opposition and the Springboks. It was a brilliant exercise but it can’t be a one-off event. It has to be part of the national calendar. You can’t only think of the Springboks from June onwards. The planning is all year round and the channels for interaction with players and regional and provincial coaches has to be there all year round.’
Meyer coached the Bulls to Vodacom Cup, Currie Cup and Super Rugby success and is very aware that there will always be those who view any selection he makes with provincial prejudice or bias. He knows he can’t win, whichever way he goes. If he picks a Bulls player it is because of his association with the Bulls. If he doesn’t include a player it is because he is trying too hard to find favour with the other provinces. It is a bit like a dad who finds his son in the wider training group. Some will always find fault, whichever way the dad goes.
Meyer knows he has to trust his instincts because too many Bok coaches have compromised in the belief that this will give them an easier ride with the rugby administration, media and supporter. It doesn’t. I know from experience and have seen Bok coaches give up what they know to be the only way because the public or media insist it is the wrong way.
Meyer is the one who will live and die by his decisions and if he is to enjoy his time as Springbok coach and realise his potential, he must be true to those decisions.
It all starts with selection, be it the retention of experience or the injection of youth. Meyer learned the need for balance when he coached the Bulls in his first year of Super Rugby. He kicked out all the oldies and introduced youngsters. The team didn’t win a game and he got sacked a year later. When he returned as Bulls Super Rugby coach he married the two components to build a team in which the functionality – and not the age – of the player mattered.
So much is about player and game management and national coaches get very little time to actually coach, especially in the first Test series of the season. Everything, though, is about selection. The great coaches are always said to be great selectors. They identify what works, even if the public may have a distinctly different and distorted view.
Understanding the way a team defends, as one example, is not something too many supporters bother with. And why should they? It isn’t their job to analyse whether a team’s defensive shape is to push up and out and force the attacking team to drift towards the touchline, or rush up and in and hurry the decision-making of the attacking inside backs. They are there to support, but armed with accurate information about the team it makes the supporting that much more enjoyable.
Often a player misses a tackle and the media and public single him out as the weakness, but in his team’s defensive system he is not the one to blame and the mistake is that of the player on his inside or outside. The coach knows this, which is why there is often so much surprise among the public at who gets retained and who gets sacked in weekly team selections.
Meyer’s history with the Bulls suggests he is prepared to make the difficult decisions, which at the time seemed controversial and outrageous but were shown to be astute.
He took a lot of flak for overlooking Joost van der Westhuizen. He was accused of being intimidated by Van der Westhuizen’s personality, by his playing pedigree and by his influence on the Bulls as a senior player. Meyer’s response to those willing to listen was he had a player he believed was a better scrumhalf than Van der Westhuizen, if not necessarily a better athlete. Meyer, at the time, said the guy he rated ahead of an ageing Van der Westhuizen would become the best scrumhalf in the world. The kid he was talking about was Fourie du Preez.
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, when coaching the Crusaders, told the New Zealand media he wasn’t going to start with All Blacks flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens at No 10. Deans said he was picking a 20-year-old who would be the best the game had seen. He was referring to Dan Carter.
Which brings me to Stormers lock Eben Etzebeth. Whenever you mention his name to Meyer the Bok coach beams.
‘Geez, I like that kid’s approach. I first saw him when he played for Western Province Schools and everything he has done since has been impressive. I know the Western Province Rugby Institute has spent a lot of time working on the detail of his game and South African rugby will be the big beneficiary of this input, but it is his character that singles him out as something special,’ said Meyer, who a decade ago beamed as much when he first started coaching Bakkies Botha.
‘They have similar characteristics. They’re tough mentally and physically. They love the collisions. They like to confront the contact and don’t wait to be confronted. Most of all, they hate losing. They hate being behind the posts. They don’t give up.’
There are similarities between Botha and Etzebeth but there are also differences. Etzebeth is no Botha clone. He is more measured than Botha was at this juncture of his career. He has the advantage of playing alongside the influential and experienced Andries Bekker, whereas Botha started out alongside a similarly inexperienced Victor Matfield.
He is more calculated than the instinctive and impulsive Botha. Both could feature in Meyer’s squad in a few years’ time if Botha sustains his enthusiasm while playing for Toulon in France, but for now the tag of enforcer and hard man will belong to Etzebeth, who has been imposing in this year’s Super Rugby competition without being reckless.
Young forwards often fail themselves because the testosterone overpowers common sense, but Etzebeth has shown calmness without compromising his presence in any collision.
‘There was one match in New Zealand where he got cleaned out a couple of times at the ruck,’ said Meyer. ‘And I loved his response. He got up and hit the next ruck harder. His attitude was one of “is that all you guys have?” … I loved watching that because he countered their aggression with physical presence and not a mad moment of ill-disciplined aggression. He is a special talent with all the possibilities of becoming a special international player.’
Meyer also sees Cheetahs flyhalf Johan Goosen as a rare breed of player who at 20 years old plays with the confidence and maturity of a veteran. Goosen won’t play against England because of injury but he will play for South Africa this year, be it in the Rugby Championship or the end-of-year tour.
Goosen, Etzebeth, Coenie Oosthuizen, Marcell Coetzee, Jaco Taute, CJ Stander and JJ Engelbrecht are youngsters who have made an impression in this year’s Super Rugby competition. If they don’t feature against England, they will feature nationally in the next 18 months.
‘We have some very good youngsters who have looked comfortable in Super Rugby and who have been influential in determining results. I don’t have to tell you who they are; you watch the games. So does our rugby public. These players perform every week.’
Adriaan Strauss has added options to depth at hooker and possibilities as captain and Duane Vermeulen – of the experienced non-Springboks – is another who is finally on the national radar. He would have been chosen had he been available and Meyer makes no secret of his admiration for the way Vermeulen plays.
But mostly the Bok coach makes no secret of the way he wants his Springboks to play. He wants players who understand that ballroom dancing is a contact sport and rugby is about collisions, about physical presence and dominating at the breakdown and in the tackle. And if a player can’t dominate with his power then he needs to do so with his brain.
Meyer, in his time at the Bulls, has never looked for a player to provide the inspiration to a team but for the team ethic to inspire the best out of the player. He doesn’t categorise players as piano players or piano movers. He doesn’t talk about stallions and donkeys. He talks about getting the identification of a player right, understanding what you want from that player and making sure he understands the expectation.
The Bok coach doesn’t easily single out individuals, but the names Goosen, Etzebeth, Vermeulen and Cheetahs captain Strauss get mentioned enough to know that when he talks about them he is also talking about the kind of player who will determine the Bok culture, which he says must know the importance of winning every Test and not be excused for losing because of the possibility of winning a World Cup in four years’ time.
– This article first appeared in the June issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, which is on sale now at selected retail outlets. Get the July issue FREE with Business Day newspaper on Friday, 22 June.