Heyneke Meyer – Springbok Coach

The response to the announcement that Heyneke Meyer is our new Springbok Coach has largely been positive. For him personally it has been overwhelming, bringing him to the realization, more than anticipated, that the responsibility that has befallen him is enormous, and that he “carries the hopes, expectations and dreams of all South Africans on his shoulders”, he says.

He was on the short list in 2003, but withdrew in order to build the Bulls team and then came even closer in 2007.  

I have noticed that unlike reactions on the announcements of previous Springbok Coaches, press coverage on Meyer’s appointment has largely been positive. This of course places even more pressure on him, especially as he stares the obvious initial limitations in the face.

Duty and honour is how he describes the privilege of being entrusted with this responsibility. Though there will be pressure, he says: “One of my philosophies is to always enjoy what you do”. And, he also believes that “the best iron goes through the warmest fire”, meaning that pressure is a good thing. He looks forward to growing as a person, while being very aware that this job requires stepping on toes.

Already the Coach is busy, but this too fits in with one of his life philosophies: “To be successful you only need to work half a day and you can choose whether this will be the first or second twelve hours of the day”. Though he worked hard at the Bulls his life settled into a certain work/home life balance. This may be something of the past for the next few years. He has already had over sixty press interviews and he is working tirelessly to get a coaching team in place. Someone suggested he slows down a bit, but he feels that every day that goes by without a team around him means he is falling behind his opponents.

Being the national coach feels like a calling to Meyer.

From a young age he listed his desired career as becoming the coach of the Springboks. In those days professional rugby seemed far-fetched. But for Meyer, who is a big picture thinker, it was always clear that professional rugby was unavoidable. All his studies after school were directed at this goal and dream. Along the way his commitment to it waned somewhat and there were times he felt not to apply, for different reasons.

In 2011, during the soccer world cup, Meyer was in the US for a week. He was struck by the view and respect Americans had for South African rugby. He realised that our country may not be the best at many things, but we can actually be the best in the world at rugby. He returned with an even stronger commitment to strengthen South African rugby from his sphere of influence, which was of course at the Bulls. Ultimately Meyer’s dream has come true. Therefore, his heart and passion is absolutely in this mission.

For some time now his main motivator as a coach has not been to collect trophies but to make a difference in the lives of the players and beyond. When former players contact him to thank him for the life and leadership skills they learnt it makes everything worthwhile. The other motivator for Meyer is a desire to unite the country, as was done in 1995.

Meyer is of course both a coach and a leader. However, he sees himself leaning more towards leadership than coaching, the latter being the technical side of what he does. He comments: “You can’t push people to do things; you can’t push someone up a ladder. Due to the position of coach one can push players to do things, but you will never be successful. As a leader I am very big on having a vision for the team, and then for every individual to have a personal vision. All these visions must then interlink; all the arrows must point into the same direction. It is therefore more about leadership. If you lead people they want to follow and make their dreams come true.”

He believes more or less in what Andrew Carnegie said, that “every person out there can be compared to the gold mining industry. If you take layers and layers of dirt off them you will find the gold nugget. If you can help the person to nurture that, you will be successful”. Meyer’s philosophy is therefore to “get people to buy into your philosophy, but it is more important to give them what they want. It is a question of what I can do to help that guy fulfill his dreams and then you fit it in with the bigger picture”.

To illustrate this principle further Meyer used the example of when one looks back at a school class photo, “the first person you always look for is yourself”.

Focusing on the individual is crucial to long term success. When he recruited young players for the Bulls he would speak to them personally and ask: “What are your dreams? Most of them have not thought about it. Then I would ask them to think about what they want out of life. When they tell me then we discuss how we would assist them to achieve their dream.”

Though the individual is very important Meyer believes equally in the need for unity of purpose and goals within the team. To illustrate the power of united goals Meyer likes telling his own story about two different individuals on a ship. The first person is newly married and on his honeymoon, enjoying the time with his wife. He falls off the ship, swims and finds an island. Then there is another man that is a convict, sentenced to death, who jumps off the ship and escapes, chains and all. He ends up on the same island with the first man. When these two individuals are threatened by dangers around them the first man will help the convict to take off the chains so that they can survive, live and hunt together. They will do this for ten years, if necessary. They have the same purpose and vision. Then another ship comes past. The first guy wants to get back on a ship to return to his wife. The escaped convict knows that if he gets on to that ship his freedom disappears and he dies. Now the purpose, vision and goals changes and these two men will probably kill each other.

So, for Meyer “the person is always most important and needs to understand I am there for him, and then the art is to try and get the individual and team goals as close together as possible. You have to let people feel safe in the team, because as soon as they are under pressure and only look at their own goal you won’t be successful. You have to create an environment of respect, camaraderie, work ethic, integrity and playing for the guy next to you.”

Though a visionary and big picture leader, Meyer is also very strong on the detail planning that follows the vision. When young coaches come to him for advice he would ask how long their contract is and then request their business or implementation plan. If they don’t have it he predicts they will not last or be successful. He believes that without a plan, when the pressure is on one ends up all over the place. In line with this he also adds: “I am very big on having set standards. I think the biggest thing for the coach is to set the standards, and to be consistent in the implementation, towards all players, including senior players. There is one set of rules for all players”.  

Overall I sense this is a man that has been prepared for the challenge and he consciously looks forward to it, radiating confidence rather than arrogance. He is the right man for the job. He thinks like a seamless leader – leading with a balanced big picture in mind, while, in an inclusive manner, confidently confronting barriers and boundaries to full potential of individuals, Springbok rugby and SA rugby in general. 

However, we should not expect unreasonable miracles from him and his management team. He will have a week to prepare with the team before they play England. When all is said and done he believes this is one of his biggest immediate challenges. Also, he needs his management team in place, which is challenging as some are tied up in existing contracts. So, year one will be a challenge, even though SARU management is assisting him as best they can.

In the immediate future he will visit with every single player in the franchises, then create a win-win relationship with the Super Rugby Coaches. He plans on meeting sponsors, followed by a road show with media across the country, to manage expectations.

Meyer’s approach is a conscious leadership one. Therefore, as per his track record, my prediction is that the time will come when the team will gain momentum and a rhythm of excellence.

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