By the time you read this the new Springbok coach will have been announced. If it is not Heyneke Meyer, some furious last-minute politicking will have been at play. Stormers coach Allister Coetzee admitted during the week that he was not in the race and Gert Smal has signed an extension to his contract with the Irish Rugby Union.
No one expects Peter de Villiers, whose contract was extended to bridge the gap, to be given a second term, but there is always the possibility of a committee that cannot bring itself to appoint a white Afrikaner to the most important coaching post in the land. Four years ago Meyer was told he had got the job, but when it came to the vote the president’s council of the South African Rugby Union could not come to a unanimous decision.
De Villiers eventually won by 10 votes to nine and Saru president Oregan Hoskins admitted subsequently that rugby credentials had not been the only deciding factor. The fact that De Villiers, the first coloured coach of the Springboks, lasted four years and held together a worthy team is much to his credit, even if his eccentric English in press conferences let him down too often for the liking of his employer.
But it is probably fair to say that the time has come for a fresh approach, not least because a slew of retirements and moves overseas require a coach who can build a team from the ground up.
This situation would seem to point towards Meyer, who took over the Bulls 12 years ago when they were at a particularly low ebb and shaped them into the best provincial team on the planet.
He was aided in his mission by the emergence of a great generation of players. In 2000, when Meyer took up his post, the Bulls squad already included the young Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Fourie du Preez, all of whom would win a World Cup with the Springboks in 2007.
Meyer spent several seasons sorting out structures at the Bulls, ensuring that the junior sides played the same style of rugby as the senior one and casting the net far beyond the province’s traditional borders in the search for talent. The Bulls under Meyer became a strong and loyal “family” and the rewards came as a direct consequence — four Currie Cups and the first of three Super Rugby titles being the most obvious.
It is questionable whether Meyer would be given the same free hand with the Springboks that he had with the Bulls. It is also a far different job coaching a national side, as Robbie Deans will attest. Deans controlled the Crusaders during the years in which they dominated Super Rugby, but his win ratio with the Wallabies is at a level that would have led to him being sacked long ago in club or provincial rugby.
In terms of Smal it seems that the Irish Rugby Union is too reluctant to lose the gentle giant in charge of their forwards. Smal is a softly spoken gentleman, but he knows how to get a grunt out of a scrum. He moved to Ireland to broaden his horizons after a number of seasons with the Stormers and Western Province. If he is not involved with the Springboks this year, his time will surely come.
Both Meyer and Smal have experience with the Boks in an assistant capacity and thus have an idea what to expect, but the remorseless need to win every game takes its toll on even the hardiest soul. Saru should offer the new coach a “get-out-of-jail-free card” in year one, because it is the beginning of the next four-year cycle that culminates with the World Cup in England in 2015. But the stakeholders and fans expect success and the coach will need to provide it.
Jake White won the Tri-Nations in his first season, after a disastrous 2003 that ended with the ousting of Rudolf Straeuli. De Villiers’s first season was not as stellar, but in 2009 his team won the Tri-Nations and a series against the British and Irish Lions. Looking back it seems that the team captained by John Smit reached its high-water mark at that juncture, but that is not the way it seemed at the time.
Whoever gets the job will have to take lessons in the tail wagging the dog because, although the Boks do not play a Test until June, the marketing department at Saru will demand to know the identity of the man who will take over the captaincy from John Smit. It should be Schalk Burger, but nothing is set in stone and the dynamic style of the Stormers captain invites injury on a weekly basis.
Having come up with a captain, the new incumbent will have to deal with contractual issues. He will have agents filling up the voicemail function on his phone, all trying to get job security for their man. Time, then, to say goodbye to your natural hair colour and the sleep of the just.