If international coaches were judged on passion for their country rather than results, Heyneke Meyer would rank alongside anyone in rugby union’s history. Never has a badge been gripped so tightly at anthem time. The 48-year-old lived each game as if his life depended on it. When the Springboks won it was all worthwhile; when they lost it was painful to behold.
Sadly, it was those gut-twisting defeats that Meyer could ultimately not escape. Not unlike Stuart Lancaster with England, he will be remembered as an extraordinarily decent man who could not quite generate sufficient on-field success. To be the coach of a Springbok team beaten by Japan at a World Cup is hardly a recipe for securing a shiny new four-year contract.
And so Meyer has stepped off the stressful, unpredictable Bok wagon before he was pushed. On his better days – and South Africa won 67% of their games under his stewardship – the Boks were well-motivated, grimly physical, defensively impressive and tricky to beat. On the debit side he persisted with senior players who were visibly past their best and South Africa’s attacking game was seldom as dangerous as their leading rivals.
That aspect of the game is continually evolving and maybe Meyer knew in his heart of hearts that, even if reappointed, he could not simply revert to the uncomplicated, forward-dominated method that worked so well during his provincial glory days with the Blue Bulls in Pretoria. South Africa also lost to Argentina for the first time before the World Cup and, while gritty in their performances against Wales and New Zealand, rarely looked like repeating their triumph of 2007.
“Since returning from England I have realised that as much as I believe I still have a lot to offer, the time has come for change,” Meyer said. “My integrity has always been very important and I feel I can leave with my head held high. I’ve always maintained that my only motivation was to serve my country and to do what was best for the Springboks.”
He will also have been aware of the rising external pressure from those who feel transformation within South African rugby requires fresh impetus. Rather than following England’s example and appointing an overseas coach, Meyer’s likely successor is Allister Coetzee, who hails from the Eastern Cape and would appease the vocal lobby who insist the Springboks remain too white in their thinking.
Coetzee, 52, was an assistant coach alongside Eddie Jones when South Africa won the World Cup in 2007 under Jake White and has coached the Stormers in Cape Town for the past six years. He has just started a new job in Japan with Kobe Kobelco Steelers but, as Jones has just shown, that does not preclude him from a U-turn should a national union come calling.
The experienced Coetzee is also a less divisive figure than South Africa’s first black coach, Peter de Villiers, and, if appointed, would be able to select from an increasingly deep pool of youthful promise in the shape of players such as Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel. The South African Rugby Union, however, is also committed to non-whites making up half of all domestic and national squads by 2019. During the World Cup they were required to include seven non-white players, including two black Africans, in their 23-man match squads.
Juggling such imperatives with the need to keep winning Test matches makes the South Africa coaching job as demanding as any in the world. Many of the provincial unions, who were due to vote next week on whether or not to retain Meyer, were already agitating for his removal, with the Western Province president, Thelo Wakefield, suggesting “drastic changes are needed if we want to move South African rugby forward”.
Coetzee, accordingly, could be installed swiftly as the Boks prepare to enter an intriguing new phase. “We have reached a natural watershed in many ways with a significant number of senior players either retiring or moving overseas as well as the fact our strategic transformation plan is now in full swing,” said Saru’s president Oregan Hoskins.
South Africa’s next fixture is not until next June but Meyer’s successor will have his hands full from the outset.