Heyneke Meyer has announced that he is not interested in having his contract renewed, a 180 degree turn on saying he “wants to stay on and make a difference”. Even the staunchest critics will feel just a little bit sorry for him. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
You have to be a mad man to be a national captain or coach in South Africa. No other job in this country comes with such high expectations, perhaps because we have been indoctrinated to have such a lowly view of the leaders of South Africa. With sporting teams having achieved greatness on more than one occasion, the expectations are high.
Sport, for many citizens, serves as a sort of buffer that offers a huffing gas hit of distraction when things are going well. When things are going badly, people are angry. And, when sport starts to become a mirror of South African society, that’s when the paw-paw really strikes the fan.
On Thursday, Heyneke Meyer announced that he does not want his contract renewed, a 180-degree turn on what he had after South Africa’s third place finish at the Rugby World Cup earlier this year. Back then, Meyer “wanted to stay on and continue to make a difference”. Snark observers quipped that he has made a difference, the wrong kind of difference, but a difference nonetheless.
The last few months of Meyer’s career has Springbok coach has been rollercoaster. From the low of losing to Japan to the high of “almost” beating the eventual Rugby World Cup champions, it has been one heck of a ride. Then there was the issue surrounding transformation. Not the South African Rugby Union, nor Meyer, can honestly say that they have done enough to transform the sport in this country. Meyer had become the lightning rod for anger around the issue, which was not helped by some questionable selection choices involving black players.
It became a sort mirror to a still desperately unequal South African society and the frustration and anger started to spill over into sport. Tensions in various spheres of ordinary society were running high – from Stellenbosch University to corporate South Africa – as the country continues to try and solve decades of oppression and an abnormal society by having a few liberals sitting around singing kumbaya and telling people how great Mandela was. The complexities of sporting teams becoming a reflection of the continued inequality of everyday life in South Africa is a discussion for another day, but Meyer had somehow become a lightning rod for offshoots of that anger.
While some of the outrage was warranted, it ignored the fact that his selections also seemed to favour Afrikaans players over English players, and Bulls players over players from other unions. Whether that was his reasoning we will probably only know once he releases his autobiography, but situations and timing conspired to make Meyer, arguably, the most divisive Springbok coach since South Africa became a democracy. Even Peter “Foot in Mouth” De Villiers managed to quell some of his divides with a few memorable victories over New Zealand. It is for this reason that even the staunchest Meyer critics would be hard pressed to not feel just a little bit sorry for him. Nobody can doubt that Meyer is a proud and passionate man who loves the game and the Boks. There is no doubt that Meyer genuinely believed that his methods were right and productive and they could work and that there was little that he could do to change it. So much so that he went so far as to say the Boks do not “have the skill” to play differently, not thinking that it might be up to the coach to nurture those skills. In the same breath, he said: “I have always been part of the solution and not the problem”.
Meyer was stuck in a coaching cul-de-sac and it was not his fault alone, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) are as complicit in this whole sordid saga as he is, and left him with little other choice than to go, but one can only wonder what their motives were. President Oregan Hoskins will brief the media on the decision tomorrow, but going by his previous discussions around serious issue, we should not expect much. Saru will now have to decide who is going to take over from him. Allister Coetzee is believed to be the front runner. Coetzee is a good coach but, like Meyer, often adopts a defensive approach. Saru have to be careful that they do not simply appoint somebody to “tick a few transformation boxes” because that’s simply booking another first class ticket to disaster. DM
Photo: South Africa ‘Springboks’ rugby union team head coach Heyneke Meyer answers a question during a news conference ahead of their Autumn Test rugby match against Scotland, in Edinburgh, Scotland November 14, 2012. REUTERS/David Moir.