It’s tough being the Springbok coach. Everyone knows that.
The hoardes of insults that are directed your way by passionate fans demanding victory never seems to cease. And it takes a certain type of madness to want to do the job.
Anyone who has watched Bok coach Heyneke Meyer in a coaches box at a game will find it hard to believe there isn’t an overflowing passion for the job, but as he starts the seven-week journey that could make or break his career, he knows the stakes at play.
In the Southern England seaside hamlet of Eastbourne, more famous for its Women’s tennis tournament and pebbled beaches that seem to lure the British tourists every year, Meyer has a mission to win the Webb Ellis trophy.
It won’t be easy, but after months of preparation, injury setbacks and some results he certainly didn’t want, his squad will enter the tournament as third favourites behind New Zealand and England. But when it comes to this tournament, there is only one thing Meyer wants – and that is victory.
But its clear the past few months have taken their toll on Meyer. The hair is visibly greyer than when he took charge and at times it seems he has the burden of all SA Rugby’s sins on his shoulders. Yet the passion still burns bright, even though he admits the past few months have been among the most difficult of his life.
“I am someone who loves rugby and who has a passion for the game, but you do make mistakes,” Meyer admitted to supersport.com.
“Sometimes you sit in that coaching box and you need to make a decision in a split-second if you send someone on, take someone off, or if you’re going to go for a specific lineout or move. The same happens with your team selections – you work with people with feelings – and you do make mistakes. People often ask me why this selection or that selection. I admit sometimes I make mistakes.
“What makes it difficult is that it isn’t an exact science. You never go out on purpose to make a player look bad, or to make the wrong choice. My only motto is to make the players better people. You never go out to be malicious and play a player or don’t play another. You make choices and sometimes you make mistakes. It is difficult.
“Sometimes I sit back and think I would have done things differently in a situation and chosen someone else. Or perhaps I should have waited before I sent a player onto the field. You make mistakes and you admit it.
“The pressure you have when you make those choices is intense. Sometimes you suspect you may be making a mistake but you back yourself. The pressure at that moment is something you can’t explain to someone. All I want is that we must win. I want our country to win.
“The other day on a tv interview the presenter told the players they need to take time off during the World Cup and play golf, get away from it. If they asked me that I would tell them, it isn’t enjoyable at times, all I want is for us to win. That’s all I enjoy. I don’t want to play golf or go out, I want us to win. That’s the difference between a coach and a player. If our team wins I’m happy. “
That single-purpose drive has marked Meyer through most of his career. The determination to ensure the success comes against the odds was what got him into this job in the first place. But not even he expected the intensity of the job, the pressure that comes from the public opinion and the lack of time to implement his plans. The Bok coach has 12 weeks a year to work with players, often disjointed, pressure weeks and must perform in the most pressurized of environments.
And this year, just when he thought he would be able to prepare with a full squad, Meyer was hit by a raft of Super Rugby injuries, and it threw the plans into disarray.
“I think while we did a lot of planning, the one thing we couldn’t have planned for was the injuries we had. To have 19 guys injured at the start of this international season threw us a bit.
“You can plan everything off the field, and we did a lot of in-depth planning, but you don’t plan for players to get injured. You have to play other guys and some of them do come through.
“So you ask yourself if you stick with them or the players in form? At the end of the day you need to back guys you believe in, and players who can go do the job you want them to do.
“It is the same with the All Blacks with a guy like Lima Sopoaga. He was genuinely in form and played well for them, and he didn’t make the squad. Every coach takes players who he believes will do the job for him.
“To me what made it difficult was that we had a competition like the Castle Lager Rugby Championship before the World Cup. It isn’t once-off games that you can experiment in. In 2007, the guys had the Tri-Nations and five warm-up games that they could experiment.”
While he has been criticised extensively about his reliance on older players, those with a World Cup pedigree, Meyer believes experience is a vital part of winning a World Cup and while some may see it as a gamble bringing in his own version of “dad’s army”, Meyer defends his selections.
“I decided one thing – right or wrong – and the margins are small in this game. I’ve spoken to a lot of coaches as well and the same thing comes up. At the end of the day you need to back the players you believe will do the job for you. If you fall, you fall with them.
“ I think we have a great blend of players at the moment, although some disagree. Some people thing Victor (Matfield) is old, but Eben is 23, Pieter-Steph is 22 and Lood is 23. If Victor is off, then you have three very young players on the field. It is the same with our midfield.
“We have a lot of young guys. People say you gamble with the older players, but we perhaps gamble on the inexperience of the younger players. Morne (Steyn) and Victor beat 90 percent of the team in the fitness tests. You work with the players and you see what they mean for a team.”
The results in Brisbane and Ellis Park point to this, as a young and inexperienced bench came on and the opposition put on experienced stalwarts in both cases, stealing the victory from under the Bok noses.
Yet all of this is moot. Meyer and his team want success at the World Cup and the public demand it. Like so many other things in South African sport, winning is all that matters at the moment.
And on the toughest of stages, the Bok coach will need to hope for a bit of luck to go with his selections as he takes the team through a tournament that can be magnificent for the victors, but brutally cruel for the rest.
Will Meyer rise or fall with his selections? The next few weeks will tell all.