Meyer a welcome change

2012-01-28 00:00

SPRINGBOK rugby press conferences will never be the same. The idiosyncratic Peter de Villiers, Springbok coach for the past four years, has given way to Heyneke Meyer and relative calm will return to the public face of South African rugby.

The irony, of course, is that Meyer, who was in charge of the Super Rugby champion Bulls at the time, was told back in 2008 that he would succeed Jake White as Bok coach. Instead he was blindsided by De Villiers and SA Rugby Union president Regan Hoskins was forced to admit that politics had played a role in that appointment. But yesterday, a World Cup later, Hoskins was back, finally able to right that wrong and reward “the best coach in the country”.

The 44-year-old Meyer, a thorough professional, will bring dignity to the job and common sense to Springbok rugby. And certainly his Saru bosses in Cape Town will not have to hold their breath every time he attends a media conference — as was the case with De Villiers.

De Villiers’ colourful media briefings were not to be missed and were popular with writers throughout the rugby-playing world. He was never afraid to voice an opinion and gone were the humdrum Springbok press conferences punctuated by clichés and clever sound bites. With De Villiers the most innocuous question could launch a thousand stories.

De Villiers, as a coach, blew hot and cold. He inherited a talented World-Cup winning squad from White and rather than break it down, and change a successful playing style as past coaches had done, he kept faith with the tried and tested.

His critics will claim that he allowed his favourite squad members, rather than assistant coaches Gary Gold and Dick Muir, to dictate the playing style and the composition of the team. The result is that Springbok rugby, although served by a generation of world-class players, stagnated for four years.

De Villiers was criticised for being one-dimensional and his response to the international press was typical.

“I won’t change my style, if I change my style I will change Peter de Villiers, and then I would have to tell God that he made a mistake when he made me.”

De Villiers’s supporters will point out that he was astute in exploiting the experience in the squad and that he worked effectively with the players, consulting and empowering them rather than dictating to them.

Certainly he defied his early critics by taking the Springboks to the very top of the rugby heap with victory over the 2009 British Lions followed by three successive wins over the All Blacks, the Tri-Nations title and the number one spot in the world’s ranking list.

There were dark moments, such as his unseemly public defence of Schalk Burger after the second Test against the British Lions which brought the overseas media, in particular, down on his head.

Later, in his own way, he apologised:

“I only make the same mistake once.”

But, at the end of his four-year tenure, De Villiers will be judged on the 2011 RWC and the Springboks’ failure to retain the title in New Zealand. He did come tantalisingly close as the Springbok team, the most experienced in South African history and appearing to peak at the right time, dominated the quarter-finals against the Wallabies, but were undone by a couple of stupid mistakes and a referee who froze in the headlights.

And so De Villiers, keen to continue in the job but discarded, is where Meyer was four years ago.

Meyer will be a popular appointment and he will bring calm and experience to the Springbok squad.

Two former Springbok coaches, Ian McIntosh and Rudolf Straeuli, yesterday welcomed his appointment.

“He has an excellent track record,” said McIntosh, “and he certainly deserves the chance. He has all the experiences and one of his great strengths is his ability as an organiser. Springbok rugby is in good hands.”

Straeuli agreed.

“Heyneke will have the respect of all the players. His record for the Bulls speaks for itself.”

Straeuli, who should know, said that the position of national coach did not always come at the right time for the individual. Had Meyer been appointed in 2008, he would have inherited a World Cup-winning squad. Instead he now has to pick up the pieces after the World Cup loss in New Zealand and rebuild the squad.

“But Heyneke is organised and he knows how to plan and put structures into place,” said Straeuli.

Meyer was an astute coach, said Straeuli, one who would not commit himself to one rigid style of play.

“But his test will come in how he manages the off-field challenges of the position. He would have had his own way at the Bulls, but it will be different at Springbok level where there are so many side issues and additional pressures. He has to have the right management team in place to help him and he will need strong support.”

Meyer will be solid, sensible and determined. There will be fears, particularly outside Pretoria, that the Boks will return to the percentage rugby of the Blue Bulls. But both Straeuli and McIntosh believe the new coach will adapt and Meyer said yesterday the Bok playing style will vary from week to week and would depend on his team’s strengths.

And, of course, the tactical approach will depend largely on who he picks at flyhalf, a match-winning kicker like Morné Steyn or a running, passing pivot, a Pat Lambie or Elton Jantjies.

Still, rugby will be more boring off the field and the comments, some quirky, others controversial, of Peter de Villiers will be missed.

As De Villiers himself remarked in his own inimitable way, “He who laughs last, laughs the latest.”

This time it is Heyneke Meyer … and, finally, he is smiling all the way to the bank.

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