Bok coach Meyer revels in a season of goodwill
It has been a busy week for Springbok rugby. On Sunday, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) announced many new appointments and, on Thursday, new Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer met the press after a planning session in Pretoria. World Cup-winning flyhalf Butch James announced his retirement from international rugby and it was confirmed that England will play two midweek games on their three-Test tour of South Africa in June.
There are those who might choose to draw an inference from Meyer meeting the press at Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool, from where you could throw a boerewors roll and hit someone in the car park at Loftus Versfeld. It is, of course, no secret that Meyer intends to base his Springbok tenure on the blueprint that worked so successfully at the Bulls.
To that end Meyer has persuaded Saru to approach five members of the Bulls and Blue Bulls coaching staff, and it is no secret that a sixth, Victor Matfield, is also on the shopping list.
Unlike his predecessor, Meyer will have a buffer between him and the president’s council at Saru following the appointment of Rassie Erasmus as general manager: high-performance teams. Saru chief executive Jurie Roux said Erasmus had been asked to “create a blueprint for South African rugby that can be implemented from junior to senior level, for our men’s, women’s and sevens’ teams.”
Perhaps more importantly, Erasmus’s job description says he “will be involved with the Springboks while they are in camp”.
It would have been counterproductive to have Erasmus in a management position without making time for the Springboks, of course, but it could be construed as undermining Meyer’s authority.
Everyone is singing each other’s praises from the same hymn sheet now. But, in the inevitable scenario that the Boks fail to win every game they play, there is certain to be some head-clashing down the line. Given that both men are meticulous in the way they prepare, it is likely that the disagreements, when they come, will be over selection.
The retirement of James, for instance, makes it even more likely that Meyer will begin the season with Morné Steyn at flyhalf. The Bulls’ pivot had a remarkable year in 2009, but has subsequently failed to reach the same heights, culminating in a one-dimensional display in Wellington last October when the Boks were bundled out of the World Cup.
Meyer’s predecessor, Peter de Villiers, failed to change the pattern on the day, something that could have happened if Pat Lambie had exchanged places with Steyn at flyhalf. But that was then and this is now. In his early days in charge, Meyer has been at pains to be as inclusive as possible and claims to have been talking to just about every player who might conceivably play Test rugby this year.
He said: “I’ve said from day one that this is not about me. There is a bigger picture and we need to use the best out there. This is bigger than just my ego. We need to do well and you can’t coach in the week or two before the Test matches - it has to be an ongoing process.”
Moreover, Meyer is hoping to pick foreign-based players when they can be released from their clubs, although Jacque Fourie has already announced that, because of his contract with Japan, he will be unavailable for the Boks for the next two years. The International Rugby Board advises European clubs to release foreign players for the June international window, but allows them to regard the new four-nation southern hemisphere competition as an unwanted interloper.
Given this unwanted dichotomy, Erasmus may come under pressure from Saru to persuade Meyer that local is lekker. It is no secret that Saru would far rather have every Springbok team selected from players on view in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. But, given Erasmus’s record of ignoring the requests of his superiors, nothing should be taken for granted.
And that brings us to the crux of the matter. Erasmus has a proven track record of success as a player, coach and manager. He was part of Nick Mallett’s great side of the late 1990s, then, in the mid-2000s, the man who reinvented Free State rugby and, finally, one of the key components in the rise of the Stormers from also-rans to potential champions.
Along the way, he has invented a system of analysing and grading games and players. Rumour has it that his appointment came with the codicil that Saru must adopt his system. With Meyer’s demands for a large and familiar cast of assistants, Saru has been forced to abandon almost all the staff and systems put in place during the four years that De Villiers was in charge.
All of this comes at a price and there will be plenty of people in powerful positions at Saru who would rather the new broom had not swept so clean. It would be wise for Meyer and Erasmus to enjoy these days of détente and co-operation. History tells us that they do not last long.