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Meyer's BLUEprint for success

Heyneke Meyer is being heralded as the saviour of Springbok rugby before even being officially announced as coach. But perhaps we should postpone the parade until he has made a few key decisions that could just define his tenure.

Meyer’s appointment signals a shift away from the issues that surrounded his predecessor Peter de Villiers, such as his ineptitude in dealing with the media and leaving too much power in the hands of the players, but that doesn’t mean there will not be reservations of a different kind over the Blue Bulls legend’s reign.

While Meyer’s merits are well documented, and there is no doubt that he deserves a shot at overhauling Springbok rugby, he faces a number of vital decisions that will be noted with interest by a demanding South African public with high expectations.

Meyer, in his time at Loftus Versfeld, built the Bulls franchise from the ground up and achieved unprecedented success by creating a culture defined by massive ambition and fierce loyalty, which could be percieved as both a strength and a possible weakness depending on your point of view.

While De Villiers’s competence as a coach and leader was constantly called into question, complaining about the decisions of the Springbok coach is something of a national pastime and Meyer’s critics – if there any out there – could use his blue (Bulls) blood against him.

It is impossible to please everybody, and no doubt that will be the last thing on Meyer’s mind as he sets about giving this opportunity his best shot, but there is no hiding from the fact that he is faced with a number of crucial selections from the start that will set the tone for the rest of his reign.

First of all there is the issue of his backroom staff. This was a major factor in the recent appointment of Steve Hansen as All Blacks coach and things are no different in South Africa, with many in SARU convinced that a major stumbling block for De Villiers was the fact that he was not on the same page as his support staff between 2008 and 2011.

Meyer’s proposed ‘Dream Team’ has got a lot of press this week, and was apparently the key factor in separating him from the rest of the field, but a closer look reveals what has essentially been his first major decision as Bok mentor.

While the choice of Paul Treu as backline coach was apparently prescribed by SARU (which, hopefully, will not become an issue for the head coach), some eyebrows will be raised by the presence of Meyer’s right hand man John McFarland alongside fellow defensive specialist Jacques Nienaber.

McFarland has travelled a long road with Meyer, following him to Leicester for his short stint with the Tigers before both returned to Pretoria to continue working with the Bulls, and many will point out that they are a package deal in a similar vein to Nienaber’s partnership with Rassie Erasmus.

Victor Matfield revealed in his recent autobiography that he had been keen for Bulls conditioning expert Basil Carzis to get involved in the World Cup campaign last year, and sure enough both Carzis and Matfield have been proposed as cogs in Meyer’s Springbok machine.

The only potential question mark at this stage about his support staff is who will take the Bok forwards? Yes, Meyer is a forwards specialist, but he has not been at the coaching coal-face since his Leicester expedition. He might need extra help there.

In order to do any job to the best of your ability you should surround yourself with proven performers that you trust, but there is no hiding from the fact that there is a definite blue-ish tinge to this coaching Dream Team which could be a potential source of criticism if they do not deliver the expected results.

The second big decision that Meyer faces is who to appoint as the new Springbok captain. The retirement of a big crop of senior players after the World Cup has left something of a void in terms of contenders and a look at South Africa’s Super Rugby skippers reveals that it is likely to be a straight choice between Schalk Burger (the favourite at present… and a Stormers/WP man), Free State’s Juan Smith (who is battling fitness troubles at present) and the Bulls’ Pierre Spies to be John Smit’s successor.

The lack of an obvious candidate means that Meyer’s choice will be all the more revealing as a positive relationship between captain and coach is paramount to achieving sustained success.

A look at the recent history of South African rugby also indicates that how Meyer deals with this issue could well define his term. Nick Mallett may have guided the Boks to 17 consecutive victories but he will always be remembered for dropping Gary Teichmann shortly before the 1999 World Cup. And while Jake White made an inspired choice by immediately announcing John Smit (who attracted some criticism during White’s tenure when someone like Gary Botha was playing good rugby) as his captain; De Villiers, in turn, came in for fierce criticism for sticking with the inspirational hooker until the bitter end.

Another pivotal selection for Meyer which could reveal the style of rugby that the Springboks will play under his tutelage will be who he selects at flyhalf.

South Africa is currently blessed with an embarrassment of riches in this department and there is a case for just about every Super Rugby playmaker when it comes to the Green & Gold No.10 shirt.

Will he pick incumbent Morné Steyn and use the territory-based kicking game that reaped such rich rewards for the Bulls in their Super Rugby heyday, but which has been exposed by the All Blacks and Wallabies in the Test arena over the last two years?

Or will he be bold and look at the younger – more attacking – options in the shape of Pat Lambie, Johan Goosen and Elton Jantjies?

Lambie, Goosen and Jantjies all represent slightly different but nonetheless exciting options, and while it is a dilemma that most coaches would love to have, the way that Meyer handles this conundrum could define his success on the international stage.

If he picks Spies as his captain and Steyn as his flyhalf and the Springboks do not deliver in a year in which there are no easy games, then we could witness a groundswell of resentment to rival the kind of frustration experienced in the De Villiers era.

That brings us to possibly the most important factor of all – how will Meyer deal with the pressure that is as much a part of the job as the green blazer? He may be the darling and coaching messiah at present, but an unconvincing home series against England and a poor Rugby Championship campaign could suddenly change all of that.

When times are tough and criticism is flowing thick and fast will he buckle, as De Villiers did when his free-flowing gameplan was chucked out the window at the end of 2008, or will he stay true to what deservedly got him into this position in the first place?

Meyer will certainly not be so naive as to expect a completely smooth ride as Springbok coach, but he will be determined to do things properly and prove that he is worthy of all of the fanfare that his appointment will be met with, it is now a question of how he approaches the key decisions that will define his legacy as Bok mentor.

By Michael de Vries

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