There is an old saying in sport that “the closer you get, the harder it is”, so we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the Springboks have had a serious wobble shortly before the World Cup and that coach Heyneke Meyer seems to be feeling the pressure more than ever.
So we might be going into the World Cup on the back of five successive losses for the first time since 2006, or the Springboks might win today in Buenos Aires and end that streak; either way it won’t really matter much come the World Cup because the concerns will still be there.
There have been encouraging performances against Australia and New Zealand, but we still haven’t won, and then last weekend was one of the lowest points in Springbok history, so we actually don’t know whether Meyer has the team on the right track or not.
Which brings me to one of the topics making big news this week, the allegation that Meyer has already signed a renewal to his contract. My understanding is that the report is false; the South African Rugby Union have been in talks with the coach about a possible extension of his term, nothing more. It would beggar belief if they have actually given Meyer the job for the next four years already, given that we have no idea how the Springboks are going to perform in the World Cup; a quarterfinal exit now suddenly looks possible based on the ugly showing in Durban last weekend.
Continuity is an attractive prospect and many people point to how Graham Henry was kept in the role of All Blacks coach despite failing at the 2007 World Cup, and of course ended up winning the title in 2011.
But Henry had won the Tri-Nations for three years in a row prior to the 2007 World Cup, so he was clearly on the right track but just lost a single game in the knockout stage. While Henry had plenty of silverware to show for his CV, sadly Meyer does not.
While I firmly believe Meyer has achieved a lot, keeping us in touch with the All Blacks as they raised their dominance of world rugby to new levels and inculcating a more high-tempo, fluid style of play in the Springboks, he has to be judged on the end goal, which is the World Cup, simply because it is his last chance to actually win something. Even the rankings aren’t on his side, with our drop from second to fifth duplicating what Peter de Villiers (how unsavoury his bitter comments have been) managed to do.
I’m also a firm believer in coaches having a shelf-life with a particular team and South African rugby has always been set up around the four-year cycle of World Cups, no coach has been in the job longer than that.
I think it’s unfair on a lot of players if there is one Springbok coach for eight years, unless he’s won the World Cup, because that’s basically the career-span of the average player these days and a really good talent could be wasted by never getting a chance at international rugby simply because he’s not the type of player the coach wants. There are several stars in the Western Cape who fit that bill and Jaco Kriel of the Lions is also a prime example.
At the moment, it looks as if the old guard of Fourie du Preez, Willem Alberts, Duane Vermeulen, Victor Matfield and Jean de Villiers are going to have to rescue the Springboks’ World Cup campaign and Meyer’s hopes of continuing in the job, but we have no idea whether their superman capes still fit them.