Meyer emerges from the mire
“I have to apologise to the nation. It was just not good enough. It was unacceptable and I take full responsibility.”
The tournament did not begin too well for South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer.
A headline-grabbing 34-22 defeat to Japan in their opening game was quite rightly hailed as the biggest upset in Rugby World Cup history.
There was simply no other way to describe the Springboks’ embarrassing reverse at the hands of Tier 2 nation – albeit one that played like one of the world’s best.
If ever there was a ‘coach-killing’ result surely this was it?
A proud rugby nation regarded as one of the giants of the game, and two-time winners of the sport’s biggest prize, beaten by a side that had notched only one victory in their seven previous World Cup appearances.
Meyer was visibly shell-shocked post-game, perhaps all too aware of the anger that would inevitably greet the result back home and the personal attacks it would prompt.
A four-year contract extension that had reportedly been dangled in front of him ahead of the tournament was suddenly in jeopardy and it looked unlikely Meyer would still be around by the time the South Africa Rugby Union board sat down to ratify that offer at the end of the year.
An apology would swiftly follow – “We have let our country down” – and then he set about two huge tasks – lifting the spirits and form of his squad and restoring his own faith in his ability to do so.
The fight back began in their next game where Samoa were the unlucky recipients of all the frustration and anger generated by the loss to Japan. A match tipped to be a close contest was far from it with the Boks coasting to a six-tries-to-none 46-6 victory.
But the morale-boosting victory came at a cost. Inspirational skipper Jean de Villiers’ game was not only ended early as a result of a broken jaw but he was subsequently ruled out of the rest of the tournament and forced into a painfully premature retirement.
Stripped of a key figure in his armoury and the ideal man to lead his side out of the doldrums, Meyer was forced to re-think his options once again. But a set back for one player provides an opportunity for another – in this case Jesse Kriel who emerged as a real star in the making.
A stubborn and resurgent Scotland were then swept aside 34-16 to put the Boks back in control of Pool B but Meyer refused to take their quarter-final passage for granted. He refused to accept the favourites tag once again – clearly buoyed by his side’s reaction to adversity.
“We’re at our best if we’re written off so we have to keep the pressure on ourselves,” he said following the game. “I don’t know why but it’s part of our mentality. If the whole world writes us off, that’s when we come back."
The USA were no match for a South Africa side now boasting significant momentum and their ten-try haul was all the more emphatic due to the fact they kept the Eagles scoreless.
Helping Meyer out of the mire were his surviving veterans including wing Bryan Habana whose hat-trick of tries saw him pull level with All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu at the top of the all-time World Cup try-scoring chart.
Knock-out rugby brings its own pressures but South Africa were up to the task against Wales in the quarter-finals and once again Meyer was grateful for a key contribution from one of his established stars.
A moment of magic from No.8 Duane Vermeulen and scrum-half Fourie du Preez put the latter over for a crucial late try that finally broke Wales’ resistance and booked the Boks a place in the semi-finals.
“I would like to kiss Fourie,” said a relieved Meyer, whose priceless reaction to the last-gasp score ricocheted around the rugby globe on social media.
He chose to play down his own contribution to his side’s success, instead heaping plaudits on his players. “I’ve always said coaching is overrated,” he insisted. “You have to be able to pick guys with character. Character is like charcoal; whenever you put pressure on you get diamonds.”
Suddenly they were confronted by a real shot at redemption. A semi-final showdown with some old and familiar foes, the world’s best side – New Zealand.
Meyer was full of praise for his All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen in the build-up to the clash with his compliments viewed as calculated by some and needlessly gushing by others.
No matter their sincerity, it did not unsettle a superior New Zealand side who deservedly booked their place in the final with a narrow 20-18 victory. To their credit, the Boks contained the All Blacks for long periods but did not create enough themselves to warrant what would have been an upset.
Meyer rued one or two crucial turning points and was quick to focus on the positives, insisting his young squad were well placed to go at least one better in four years’ time.
According to him, they had the potential to be ‘invincible’ in Japan but that was perhaps wishful thinking given the toll the modern game takes on even the best laid plans.
Bruised, battered and beaten, Meyer had to rally his troops once again ahead of a Bronze medal match that he himself had little time for – “It’s like kissing your sister” was his take on the task when asked his thoughts in the aftermath of his side’s semi-final defeat.
He rediscovered his focus to orchestrate a 24-13 victory over a depleted Argentina in a game that failed to match all those that had preceded it in terms of quality or atmosphere and the smile brought by a third place finish was short lived.
“If you start to aim for third place and start jumping up and down about that, then you shouldn’t be coach of South Africa,” Meyer insisted.
But perhaps he should afford himself the odd moment of exclamation having restored his own reputation and that of his side throughout a six-week-long rollercoaster ride of a tournament?
Just like the gut-wrenching defeat that launched their campaign, he should also take full responsibility for the rescue job.