The current narrative amongst the South African public following the conclusion of the southern hemisphere rugby season has turned to one man in particular: Heyneke Meyer.The question of whether or not he should be retained as the national coach is something that is plaguing fans and critics alike, but is there more to the argument than analysing stats and facts?
Regarding those scrutinised numbers, we may as well get them out of the way. After four years at the reins, Meyer holds a 67% win ratio – which is above that of Peter de Villiers’ (62.5%) , one of Meyer’s most highly-publicised detractors. This won’t make die-hard fans feel any better, as any loss in a Springbok jersey is one which shouldn’t happen.
As for trophies, Meyer has been unable to acquire any noteworthy silverware during his tenure, which is arguably the most frustrating absences of the current era. This frustration is due to how close the Springboks have come over the past four seasons: coming runners-up in the 2013 and 2014 editions of the Rugby Championship (with the deciders coming down to the last match) and the irrefutably close encounters in 2015 against the All Blacks and the Wallabies – matches which, let’s be honest, both should have been won.
While the excruciatingly obvious famine of silverware is haunting the current Springbok team, it is fair to say that progress has been made in the less discernible areas of the game.
As we’ve discussed in previous columns, the Springboks have played some of their most exciting rugby under Meyer, at least since 2007. The entertainingly breathtaking clashes with the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 2013, 2014, and 2015 during the Rugby Championships are evidence of that. Expansive running rugby, clever set-piece moves, and spontaneous sparks of flair were all featured and were promoted and celebrated by Meyer and the team, despite being on the end of some unsatisfactory results.
Meyer’s introduction of new players, like centres Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende and Jan Serfontein, locks Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth, tighthead Frans Malherbe, fullback Willie le Roux and flyhalf Handré Pollard, has been effectual. These players are all expected – baring injury – to become Bok stalwarts in the years to come, and have been an integral part of the new-brand of Springbok rugby Heyneke Meyer has inaugurated. While some may find hard to believe, Meyer is trying to evolve the gameplan and arsenal of the Springboks. It may just be coming at an (admittedly) labouringly slow pace.
Something that Meyer must be commended for is the relationship he has formed with the players. They respect him, and that, sometimes, is even harder to earn than trophies.
That’s not to say that Meyer doesn’t need help. It’s an indisputable fact that the New Zealand technical minds are the leaders in positive and progressive rugby, and Meyer could do with the consultation of a New Zealander counterpart.
Leading up to and during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, every nation who acquired the help of a Kiwi coach (in whatever capacity) showed massive strides and progression in their style, skillset, and try-scoring ability. What Joe Schmidt, Graham Henry, and Warren Gatland have done for Ireland, Argentina, and Wales can’t be ignored. The pace, intelligence, and ambition of all these sides have grown substantially, and just looking at some of the try-scoring highlights from these teams is a clear indication that Australasian coaches have the right mentality to push the game forward.
With the incredible depth of talent in the current and expanded Springbok squad, South African rugby is an attractive environment to work in, so roping in the services of a distinguished New Zealand coach wouldn’t be too difficult. However, the main obstacle to overcome will be getting SA Rugby to swallow its pride. The involvement of foreign coaches in Springbok rugby has been incredibly intermittent. That’s not to assume that there aren’t great local coaches, there are, but when external help has been used, great things have happened – just think back to Eddie Jones’ involvement with the Springboks’ success in 2007.
Someone like former All Blacks coach John Mitchell would be a great addition to the Springbok coaching staff, as his blunt, calm, yet technical knowledge has helped spark some stubborn situations, most notably with the Lions in 2010 and the Western Force in their early days.
The assistance could help propel Meyer from fervourous leader to trophy-winning chief, but it will take a bit of pulling and pushing in the sports politics department, because it’s clear that Meyer has captured the hearts and minds of the nation with his passion, but adding some shiny mementos to the cabinet wouldn’t hurt either.