THE changing face of South African rugby could not feature a more engaging and quietly ambitious individual than Heyneke Meyer. And the fulfilment this week of a childhood dream will mark another milestone for the Springboks coach.
The 45-year-old was born and bred in Nelspruit, the country town where agriculture and rugby are the dominant industries, so it is little surprise to hear that he has fallen in love with the Scottish Borders after numerous trips to Scotland. He has even talked his wife Linda out of a holiday in Paris this year to return to the south of Scotland.
After naming his Springboks side to face Scotland yesterday, fielding questions in English and Afrikaans on how much his side would beat Scotland by, he agreed to spend time with the small band of Scottish journalists. He spoke openly about his struggles with South African expectations of beating every nation by a cricket score, his love of Scottish rugby under Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer and how he no longer cared whether his side dominated possession in a Test match.
The former Blue Bulls coach seemed relaxed but insisted it was a facade, that a Boks coach can rarely relax while he carries the hopes of a nation working hard to pull disparate communities together. Meyer showed concern for the trials of his counterpart Scott Johnson in moulding a competitive Test squad from a small professional base, but is nervous ahead of the first Test match played in his home town.
“As a youngster there was a lot of rugby here but never a Test match,” he said, looking out of the team’s Hazyview base towards Nelspruit. “I am trying to take the emotion out of it this week, but it’s difficult because I was born here and grew up here, and, as a young boy, you always think the people in the cities were more bright and more equipped. But I grew up with the ambition to be the Springbok coach one day and to one day come back here with my team.
“But, you need to be clinical and take emotion out, and focus instead on what you need to do. There is a lot of pressure in South Africa because everyone here believes that you should smash every team that you play, but I totally believe that the gap between the countries in the top ten is not big anymore.
“Most countries have professional coaches at club level, players play abroad and the fitness and conditioning levels are all the same, and while Scotland do not have the population base, in my experience they are always difficult to beat.”
After his side beat Italy 44-10 immediately after Scotland had gone down 27-17 to Samoa in Durban Meyer has decided against exposing more players to Test starts and made just two enforced changes, Ruan Pienaar returning for the injured debutant Jan Vermaak and Marcell Coetzee, the belligerent Sharks flanker, replacing Francois Louw, whose wedding is on Sunday.
Meyer studied sports psychology at the University of Pretoria and went on to make a name for himself in the ultra-competitive world of schools and age-grade rugby in South Africa. The Southwest District Eagles hired him as assistant coach and it was with them on tour that he first came to Scotland and linked up with Scottish coaches.
He was part of the Springboks coaching team in 1999 and 2001, coached the Stormers and then the Bulls to four consecutive Currie Cup wins and the Super 14 title in 2007 but was overlooked more than once for the Boks job, notably in 2007, when Peter de Villiers became the first black coach.
Meyer briefly quit the game, frustrated, but, persuaded to return, was last year handed the role he coveted. South Africa lost three games in his first 12 last year, twice to New Zealand and once in Australia, beating England, Argentina, Ireland, Scotland and the Wallabies, but the pressure steps up a level in the second year.
Want to get under his skin? Ask him if he sets his teams up to score tries. Meyer came into the role with a reputation for typical South African forward-orientated rugby, around kicking stand-offs such as Morne Steyn, but he insists that he likes his teams to move ball and score tries, as they did against Italy.
“We’ve done a lot of research and a strange thing came up in the last five years, and I know this doesn’t make sense,” he said, “but it was that the team that kicks the most, that gives away the most penalties and has least amount of ball usually wins games. The reason is that defences are so good nowadays that, whenever you have the ball and make a mistake, that’s the only time when defences aren’t set and you score from them.
“A lot of commentators in South Africa want us to keep ball all the time but sometimes it’s not good to have too much ball. If you send one guy into the ruck with three cleaners to compete on the ground, and then at the next one you send three guys in again with the ball-carrier and they [opponents] send one in, then you run out of numbers and, if they get a turnover, you don’t have a defence.
“So what we’ve seen in the last five years is that you don’t need to have the ball all the time to win, but ball at the right time in the right areas and be able to execute.”
Before he stands up, shakes hands and strides back into the highly expectant world of Springbok rugby, he adds: “People here forget that we’ve lost to Scotland in recent years and Scotland is a proud nation so I expect them to come out with all guns blazing.”
South v Scotland at Nelspruit
Saturday, kick-off 4:15pm (BST)
15 W le Roux
14 B Habana
13 JJ Engelbrecht
12 J de Villiers (c)
11 B Basson
10 M Steyn
9 R Pienaar
1 T Mtawarira
2 A Strauss
3 J du Plessis
4 E Etzebeth
5 J Kruger
6 M Coetzee
7 A Botha
8 P Spies
16 B du Plessis, 17 T Nyakane, 18 C Oosthuizen, 19 F van der Merwe, 20 S Kolisi, 21 P van Zyl, 22 P Lambie, 23 J Serfontein.