It might be a strange thing to say, but Heyneke Meyer is about to be tested in a way he has never been tested in before during his career as a professional coach, and it won’t be on a rugby field.
World Cup winning coach, Jake White, once said that the only thing you can be assured of when you take the job as national coach is that at some point, you will get fired.
A strong statement indeed, but if we consider the history of Springbok coaches since we won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, it seems to be right on the money.
We had coaches fired for secretly taped conversations, complaining about ticket prices, being a fashionisto and thinking some ‘army’ camp was a good idea for team building.
Of course the official line you will hear more often than not is that coaches will be judged on their results… Fact is, results only serve as a convenient ‘official’ excuse to send a coach packing for a string of off-field events which has left a certain sector of individuals disgruntled.
It’s not like on-field results are unimportant of course, it gives even the most amateur arm-chair critic an easy statistical indication of any coach’s ability, but if we have managed to fire coaches for complaining about ticket prices, or after winning rugby’s most prized possession, the Rugby World Cup, we get a fair idea of the nature of the beast which is SA Rugby.
The beast itself is of course fed by public, or media perception more often than not – which creates a specific mood around certain individuals. I have personally seen likeable, but poor coaches hang onto their positions for far too long whilst those with great on-field results are alienated because they piss a couple of people off.
With the appointment of a new coach usually comes renewed hope. Two of our most successful coaches over the last 15 years, Nick Mallet and Jake White, took charge of teams that were at an ultimate low following a series loss to the British and Irish Lions, and the failed ‘Kamp Staaldraad’ World Cup of 2003. Given the position South African and Springbok rugby found themselves in at the time these gentlemen were given the task to ‘fix’ our rugby ‘using all means necessary’. Expectation was not as high as one would normally expect from a national coach because the general mood of the public and those in charge were that ‘it could not get any worse than it already is’.
It gave them a certain sense of freedom and time to build their structures, and of course, both ended up with some special results and records. Of course it did not stop them from getting ‘fired’, but I digress…
In 2008 when Peter de Villiers was controversially appointed as the coach to take charge of the World Cup winning Springboks. The moment he accepted the job he was tainted as nothing more than a political appointment – a view stupidly confirmed at the time by SA Rugby President, Oregan Hoskins.
The result of this was immediate and devastating. The media and public were divided into two camps where you had those supporting the appointment of De Villiers, and those firmly against it. His successes were often, if not always explained as ‘lucky’ or because ‘the player’s coached themselves’. And of course his failures were predictably accompanied by comments with a strong political undertone as proof that he was just a political pawn, or token.
Unlike Mallet and White who only seemed to piss on people’s batteries over time resulting in their dismissals as Springbok coaches, De Villiers was doomed from the outset thanks to an off-field related incident which divided a rugby nation.
Heyneke Meyer’s appointment in January was met with a sense of relief and expectation. Finally South Africa got a national coach with an impeccable CV and a cabinet full of trophies proving his ability as a coach of the highest caliber. In fact, you had to look really hard to find a South African rugby supporter or scribe that was unhappy with the announcement of his appointment as Springbok coach. Finally we had a coach who all believed would take Springbok rugby to a level we not only know we are capable of, but believe we deserved!
That mood however, is changing.
Since the appointment of his support staff and rumours of his plan specifically for the England tests, South Africa’s deep routed provincialism has come to the fore where Heyneke’s image as Springbok coach is creating the perception of being a bit too blue for some people’s liking.
I am yet to find a scribe dealing with this development directly, but it has already prompted Meyer to go on the defensive dismissing ‘fears’ that he is only interested in involving individuals from his previous union, the Bulls, in key positions. But a quick glance at newspaper comments or letters, or views expressed on social media, news websites and blogs will reveal that this perception already exists, and its growing.
Meyer of course is in a very precarious position given the timing of his appointment, and time at his disposal to put together a management team or in fact, just a Springbok team. His decisions so far is justified and well-reasoned, but unfortunately Meyer he is finding out rather quickly that well reasoned, logical rugby decisions mean very little to an over-emotional, deeply passionate but also deeply provincialistic rugby public. And in an environment where even paid journalists who feed Joe Public with information and opinion admit to a certain sense of bias given teams they are paid to cover, you can expect this idea or perception of Meyer’s ‘Blue Boks’ will only gather momentum.
The last thing Meyer needs is a rugby public divided on his ability as coach over stupid perceptions, because as much as a possible test series victory over England might justify his decisions now, there will be those out there who cannot wait for his first failure to throw his apparent love-affair with the Bulls back in his face. For his sake, I hope it is not against the Poms.