Heyneke Meyer was on Friday unveiled as the new Springbok coach. We take a look at the man who has inherited South African rugby’s toughest job, a man with an impressive rugby CV and a pretty impressive character too.
Meyer turned 44 on October 6, 2011 – his young age something of a surprise as he seems to have been involved in coaching in South Africa forever. All coaches know the thrills and disappointments of coaching a rugby team – and Meyer certainly knows both sides of the coin.
Going as high up the coaching ladder as he has gone, he knows the height of the thrill and the depth of disappointment that can so easily follow it. The higher the climb, the harder the fall – and then the excitement of getting back to the top where the view is glorious. He has always got back on the ladder and started climbing again.
Probably his hardest knock came in 2008, just after the winning of the World Cup. The forerunner to take over the Springbok coaching job from Jake White. He was – apparently – Saru’s choice and instead Peter de Villiers was the surprise appointee. Saru President Oregan Hoskins made it clear that “transformation” had influenced the final decision. With that Heyneke Meyer walked away from rugby – but not far and not for long.
Born and schooled in the lovely Lowveld town of Nelspruit, Meyer took his rugby enthusiasm to the University of Pretoria – Tukkies – with its great rugby tradition. There he studied sports psychology, played a bit, administrated a bit and coached a bit. But his studies and his time on the rugby field set him on a coaching career.
In 1997 Meyer went down to George as an assistant coach to Dr Phil Pretorius. Pretorius, an historian, moved up to the Falcons and Meyer became head coach of the Eagles, bringing his great friend Frans Ludeke to help him. Both men travelled the bumpy coaching road with all its potholes.
The Eagles are not one of the powerhouses of South African rugby. In 1996 they were in the Currie Cup, then divided into two sections of seven teams each. In their section they ended bottom without a win. But Pretorius and Meyer took them to eight on the 14-team Currie Cup with a 30-18 win over the Blue Bulls in the Loftus kraal. Then in 1998 Meyer took them to seventh in the Currie Cup and the semifinal of the Vodacom Cup in his first year and to the semifinal of the Currie Cup the second year when they beat both Western Province and Natal. After he left, they subsided again to a humbler existence.
In addition he was an assistant coach to Alan Solomons at the Stormers and in 1999 and 2000 was part of the Springboks management team under Nick Mallett who had a high opinion of Meyer. He was also briefly part of Harry Viljoen’s initial management team when he replaced Mallett in 2001.
In 2000 Meyer went back to Pretoria. It was the worst season in the history of the Blue Bulls when they failed to qualify for the top eight of the Currie Cup. The next year he replaced Eugene van Wyk as the Blue Bulls coach and the (then) Northern Bulls in the Super 12. His lows in this job were being dismissed twice, the first time in 2001 when the Bulls came second last in the Super 12 with only the Sharks below them. He was back in 2002 when for the second year running they came stone last. He was fired again but came back in 2005 when the Bulls began their climb to glory.
For Meyer the heights were winning the Super 14 and victories in the Currie Cup, the competition the Blue Bulls do best of all. Under him – and he stayed with the Blue Bulls even when jettisoned by the Bulls – the Blue Bulls won the Currie Cup four times. This came after a wobbly start when they reached the nadir of their existence. Meyer’s answer to this was to set about organising the coaching/playing structures of the union, seeking to make every one of its representative teams a winner – and the fruits of this were soon obvious.
Winning the Super 14 – the second Super Rugby win by a South African team, following the Lions’ Super 10 win in 1993 – was an astonishing feat. The Bulls met the Sharks in Durban in the final and were trailing when time was up but the Sharks failed to find touch and Bryan Habana did his electric eel impersonation and scored. Derick Hougaard converted and the Bulls won 20-19. That was in 2007 when the Springboks won the World Cup and Ludeke – unwanted by the Lions – came across to the Blue Bulls.
After the World Cup Jake White went off in a grumpy fashion, Meyer was the frontrunner to replace him… but De Villiers was appointed. For the first time Meyer threw in the towel. Off he went into business and a senior post in a sports supplement company.
He was not there long before accepting the post as the main coach at top English club Leicester Tigers, which may well have come as a shock for a young man with a young family from sunny South Africa, where Afrikaans was spoken and religion played a big part in his life. He was not long there either – just under eight months before his family went home, he went home on compassionate leave and he resigned.
Back home the Blue Bulls were wise enough to get him involved, not in the nitty gritty of a team abut as the overseer of all teams and their coaching.
It would be easy to hang a tag around Meyer’s neck which says Disciplinarian, a rugby Savonarola, but that would be wide of the mark. He certainly is a religious man – as are most of his Bulls team. He certainly is a family man and when his father and his wife were in the same hospital at the same time, father with heart problems, wife with cancer, his faith was tested.
He is also a man that his players relate to. When he went to Leicester Tigers, Derrick Hougaard, the darling of Loftus Versfeld, went with him. When he handed out the jerseys to the Springboks in 2010 on the eve of the Springboks Test against the Wallabies, Victor Matfield’s 100th Test, the great lock paid particular tribute to Meyer, saying he was the greatest influence in his career, the man who taught him most about the game.
One of Meyer’s strongest characteristics is his thoughtfulness. He is thoughtful about the needs of others and thoughtful about his own conduct and words. He is a strong man who has learnt from adversity to add to his layers of strength. He is thorough, determined, efficient and hard-working and he has a quiet, strong loyalty to his players who in turn are loyal to him. Above all, he is a palpably good man.
He is the new Springbok coach. Finally.