Posts Tagged ‘heyneke meyer’

Give Allister and Stick a sporting chance

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THE appointment of Allister Coetzee and Mzwandile Stick to the Springbok team represents an opportunity to align rugby with contemporary SA. Let’s not blow it.

Both bring considerable social and political capital. Each has proved himself to be a game-changer. At Western Province, Coetzee showed that you could field a team with eight or nine players of colour and still be the best in the country. In his eight years at the helm, he led the Stormers to the top of the South African conference three times, and won the Currie Cup twice.

Almost half the players in Stick’s Under-19 team, which went on to win the Under-19 Currie Cup, were black, most of them from the Eastern Cape.

Neither came from a culture that privileged whiteness, and they gave the lie to the prevailing wisdom in parts of South African rugby: that black players weaken a team and are the tax you pay to appease the politicians.

Stick grew up in a Port Elizabeth township with a mother who frequently struggled to put food on the table. He attended the local township school, and yet still managed to make it to the top, captaining the Sevens team that won the World Series title in 2008-09.

Coetzee grew up in Grahamstown. He has a vivid memory of watching white boys at nearby Kingswood College play rugby with the best equipment, while he had to walk to the much poorer coloured school down the road. His father died while he was very young and his mother struggled to provide for him and his three siblings.

 

 

ALTHOUGH a talented and ambitious scrumhalf, his race precluded him from playing for SA.

Stick and Coetzee reflect the tough life experiences common to the majority of South Africans, and their elevation to the upper echelons of the game must make it seem much more accessible than it has in the past.

Neither has a chip on the shoulder, or sees himself as a victim. Their victory against the odds they were born into shows character and emotional resilience.

These qualities came in handy when dealing with their respective managements.

Stick answered to the deeply dysfunctional Eastern Province Rugby Union, and Coetzee endured eight years of frequently erratic and interfering management under the Western Province Rugby Union.

But the pressures on the Springbok coach, in particular, are way more intense and, without proper support, Coetzee will struggle.

The South African Rugby Union (Saru) has done well to appoint Coetzee and Stick. But it now needs to prove that this is not window-dressing. It needs to give their new Bok coach all the resources he needs to succeed. Otherwise, his appointment will be seen to be a cynical one, setting him up to fail.

Similar privileges to those accorded to Heyneke Meyer would be a good start.

Saru forked out substantial sums at the start of Meyer’s tenure to enable him to bring his own management team from the Bulls. He was then allowed to add more coaches, such as breakdown specialist, Richie Gray.

As yet, Coetzee does not appear to be similarly indulged. There is no evidence that he has picked any members of the team announced on Tuesday.

Given that he has already been disadvantaged by being appointed three-and-a-half months late, Saru needs to do all it can to help him, otherwise it risks being accused of not giving the same opportunities to a black coach as it gave to a white, Afrikaans one.

The corporate world should come to the party: any new sponsorship deals should be predicated on better governance, which would include equal opportunity for all employees, regardless of colour.

There has been talk of the Super Rugby coaches forming a Bok “selection committee”. This must be rapidly scotched. Meyer fought for — and won — the right to have ultimate say over selection. Rightly, he argued that if he were to be held responsible for winning every game, he needed to be able to pick his team.

The Super Rugby franchises need to play their part and put petty provincial rivalry aside.

The initiative introduced in Meyer’s term of systematically resting key Springbok players during Super Rugby must be continued.

Super Rugby coaches should also give more players of colour some proper game time to increase the pool available to Coetzee.

Fans need to give the new coaching team the benefit of the doubt. A bit of generosity of spirit would go a long way. Fans, particularly those who flock to Ellis Park for the iconic All Black derbies, should learn the first verses of the national anthem so that we are no longer subjected to the dramatic amplification of sound when English and Afrikaans verses are sung. It’s not that difficult. Make an effort.

 

 

DESPITE the autumn chill in the air, there is a sense of spring-time, of new beginnings, about rugby. Unlike Meyer, who looked to seasoned troops right from the start of his campaign, Coetzee will have to start afresh. Most of last year’s team have either retired, are approaching retirement, or are playing abroad.

This should not be a problem for Coetzee, who has proved that he is happy to trust youngsters.

Stick is something of a specialist in turning rookies into stars, given his track record with the Eastern Province Under-19s.

Transformation, which is viewed as a burden by Meyer, will come naturally to Coetzee.

At the Stormers, Coetzee displayed the ability effortlessly to forge racially and culturally diverse teams. Boys of colour were given every opportunity, but so were white players. Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers, Eben Etzebeth flourished in his time, as did Siya Kolisi, Scarra Ntubeni, and Nizaam Carr.

There is a good chance that, with Coetzee and Stick at the helm, the sense of marginalisation that has plagued black Springboks will be a thing of the past. Under Meyer, Afrikaans was used for team talks, which was alienating for black players. The new Bok set-up hopefully will better reflect our diversity of languages.

Stick’s Under-19s also brought a vibrant culture from their Eastern Cape schools — with traditional isiXhosa war and struggle songs borrowed from their elders.

Some infusion of this into Bok culture could only enrich it.

• McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok, and a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town.

* This column first appeared in Business Day

 

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THE appointment of Allister Coetzee and Mzwandile Stick to the Springbok team represents an opportunity to align rugby with contemporary SA. Let’s not blow it. Both bring considerable social and political capital. Each has proved himself to be a game-changer. At Western Province, Coetzee showed that you could field a team with eight or nine […]

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Let’s pick the right Bok coach this time

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  • SHOULD Heyneke Meyer’s contract be extended? I think it should — but only for a year, as a holding operation. This would be just long enough to enable the South African Rugby Union (Saru) to give proper consideration to the question of who should coach the national team next and what his job description should be.

    They should take their time about it. A Springbok coach has more complex challenges than an England or All Blacks coach. It won’t be easy to find the right man. We should also completely rethink what we want from the next coach and how we want him to shape our national team.

    The Saru general council will decide on December 4 whether to extend his contract. If they decide against, they will be without a national coach by the end of the month. What the union must not do is resort to the old short-term, knee-jerk approach to hiring coaches.

    Peter de Villiers got the job because it was felt that a black coach was needed. De Villiers got the job ahead of perhaps a more appropriate black candidate because he was strongly pushed by certain Saru factions.

    Meyer was appointed belatedly and in haste in 2012 because Saru were so keen to get rid of De Villiers. Meyer’s appointment was partly because it was felt he should have been appointed in place of De Villiers in 2008.

    The Rugby World Cup has shown up Meyer’s limitations. I write this with some regret because I like him: he is an engaging, open man and the readiness with which he shares intense emotion is refreshing in a macho world. But the fact is that he was a brilliant club coach who has not been able to replicate that success on the national canvas.

    At the Bulls, Meyer could exert control. He recruited players straight from school and moulded them in his image. They owed their careers to him. Nor did he have to venture out of his cultural comfort zone — white, Afrikaans and Christian. The main source of pressure, selection-wise, was the white right. The only imperative was to keep winning and his game plan did that very effectively.

    This year, as national coach, he was relying on the same players and the same plan.

    The master class in modern rugby provided by the All Blacks at the World Cup final showed up the creakiness of his game plan, and he wasn’t able to come up with anything else. He also showed himself to be woefully out of touch with the national psyche.

    One would have thought the outpouring of anger at his squad selection before the Boks set off for the UK might have had some effect. But apparently not. His selections revealed no change in his reluctance to place trust in young players of colour.

    He has given only one young black player, Trevor Nyakane, consistent game time. Nothing he has said in the past few days has indicated that he acknowledges how inadequate this is.

    A continuation of this will damage the Springbok brand. There is a risk it will return rugby to the bitter, divisive role it occupied during apartheid.

    There have been hints that some of Meyer’s assistant coaches might be axed: partly as sacrificial lambs to appease public anger and partly to make way for an assistant of colour. This won’t do. Meyer will still call the shots.

    If, as it should be, our aim is to consistently be the best in the world, we need to be copying the All Blacks. Much has been written about the need to emulate their system of central contracting and collegial interaction between franchises — with the national team being given priority by all parties. Obviously, this is ideal but it is not likely to happen soon, given all the factional self-interest within Saru.

    But, with the national coach, we can start at Year Zero. He should be tasked primarily with two things: inculcating a style of rugby that empowers players to beat the best at their own game by putting brains ahead of brawn. Players should be encouraged to assess the situation unfolding before them intelligently and then seizing whatever opportunity it presents skilfully and incisively.

    Second, he needs to develop a team that properly represents our demographics. He should be given the time to do this. There should not be pressure to win the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019. The priority should be the building of a winning habit that would peak in 2023.

    Planning and an emphasis on continuity are important. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was assistant to Graham Henry, who was himself head coach for eight years.

    The next Springbok coach should be tasked with growing his successor.

    A Kiwi coach might well be the way to go. An added advantage is that he would be unencumbered by the South African race filter. But merely having been born in New Zealand is not enough.

    John Plumtree and John Mitchell have been mentioned. I’d suggest Saru chat to black players who have played under both — not current players because they wouldn’t talk openly for fear of jeopardising their careers — but former players who have nothing to lose. They may or may not endorse either or both of the Johns, but they will certainly have very interesting things to say about how black players fare under different coaches.

    Coaches with more recent experience of New Zealand structures might also have more to offer. Hansen, for instance, is rumoured to be stepping down in 2017. He might be worth waiting for.

    • This column first appeared in Business Day

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SHOULD Heyneke Meyer’s contract be extended? I think it should — but only for a year, as a holding operation. This would be just long enough to enable the South African Rugby Union (Saru) to give proper consideration to the question of who should coach the national team next and what his job description should […]

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Taking the Bulls by the horns

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ONE of the most comprehensive makeovers of any South African sporting institution was undertaken by Heyneke Meyer at the turn of the century. He transformed the Blue Bulls from an underperforming, amateur outfit into a successful professional business. And he is building on the strategies honed at the Bulls to take the Springboks into the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The organisational principles Meyer instituted could apply to any modern business: a flattened, relatively transparent leadership group; a culture which prioritised the goals of the team above those of the individual and the systematic development of fresh talent to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organisation.

When Meyer was appointed head coach of the Bulls in 2001 rugby had already been professional for five years but the Bulls had not caught up. Their coaches had traditionally been drawn from the ranks of the South African Defence Force and the University of Pretoria. Their player group was dominated by the fading stars of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

There was a poor work ethic. Senior players demanded fag-like obeisance from the younger players. Gym was slipshod and amateurish, with wives and girlfriends frequently joining in, which meant there was more preening than pruning. The ruling ethos was army-style: hierarchical and authoritarian.

And their rugby was awful. In 2000 their Currie Cup team was so poor it was relegated to the B division. In Super Rugby they languished at the bottom of the league.

Meyer’s strategy was to invest in a first-class management team that was capable of recruiting and developing promising young rugby players and turning them into Springboks. Where previous practice had been to blow most of the budget on buying star players, under Meyer the focus was on building the institutional capacity to create star players.

The first thing he did was to cull 11 of the 16 Springboks he inherited and drastically cut the salaries of those who remained, such as Joost van der Westhuizen. The money saved went into a recruiting drive for coaches and young talent. The average age of players dropped from 29 to 23.

The tradition in rugby at the time was to appoint a head coach assisted by a backline and forwards coach, each of whom aspired to succeed the head coach. Meyer positioned himself differently: he was leader and co-ordinator of a team of specialists, each of whom had to know more about their field of expertise than he did.

Thus he sought expert kicking, conditioning, defence and attack coaches and then persuaded the Bulls management to employ them. He was also the first coach to insist on a dedicated team doctor to ensure consistent treatment and management of one of rugby’s biggest problems: injuries.

As Marco Botha records in his book, Coach, there was a divisive, envious culture at the Bulls prior to Meyer’s arrival. The under-19 coach hoped that the under-21 coach would mess up so that he could get his job. And the under-21 coach was secretly gunning for the Currie Cup coach’s job. It was the same with the players: each man was in it for himself.

There was little consistency in the style of rugby played by the Bulls teams. A player would have to adjust to different scrumming, tackling or kicking tactics each time he progressed to a more senior team. Under Meyer, everyone employed or contracted by the Bulls was a cog in the machine and either they all pulled in the same direction or they were out.

 

 

Coaches at every level reported directly to Meyer and he thus ensured that teams played the same style of rugby. Specialists from the senior team were deployed to junior teams to ensure their coaches were all instilling the same techniques.

If a spate of injuries meant Meyer needed to fast-track an under-21 player to the senior team, he could be confident that the boy would fit in seamlessly.

It has to be said that Meyer was fortunate in that his tenure coincided with effective leadership at the top. Bulls CEO Barend van Graan bought into Meyer’s vision and backed him all the way, which mainly meant persuading the board to support Meyer and finding the funds to pay his unprecedentedly large coaching team.

Under Van Graan, the Bulls remain the best run union in the country. Despite the fact that rugby has been professional for two decades, South African rugby still tends towards the clubbish and secretive.

Van Graan, alone among union CEOs, keeps his office door ajar, literally and figuratively. Without this kind of openness, it is unlikely Meyer would have been able to achieve what he did.

And his achievements were remarkable: he not only transformed the management model and culture, he also set the Bulls off on a winning streak. They won the Currie Cup in 2002, 2003 and 2004. They reached the semifinals of Super Rugby in 2005 and 2006 and, in 2007, became the first South African team to win the Super Rugby title.

Meyer realised that he needed to be looking to the future as well. Management teams can be relied on to last, but players wear out fast. By the age of 35 — unless they are Victor Matfield who is still playing at the age of 37 — they are past their sell-by dates.

Meyer is clear about what he looks for when he is recruiting: “Character. Mental toughness. After three playing sessions, I can tell you which player will make it and which not. After tough sessions, guys who walk out and sit out will always sit out when it’s tough.

“I also look at their upbringing: when I interview youngsters, it is usually with both their parents. Now, 90% of the time, the mother will want them to be in the hostel: their washing must be done and they must study. The father just wants them to play rugby.”

“You get kids who, in an hour’s conversation, don’t say a word. The parents speak for him. Clearly he can’t express himself. He’s never been able to fight for himself,” Meyer says.

The characteristics Meyer looks for would equally apply to an employee in any other business: self-reliance, discipline, a strong work ethic, a team player and, above all, emotional resilience. The ability to overcome setbacks and come back stronger.

 

 

Again, though, he recognised that recruiting was a speciality and he employed someone else to focus on it. The man he chose, Ian Schwartz, created a database of promising young players throughout the country and built up relationships with school coaches, agents and parents to ensure the Bulls were their first choice once they had matriculated.

Schwartz, along with almost the entire management team originally recruited by Meyer for the Bulls, is now with the Springboks. This was a precondition for Meyer’s acceptance of the job.

“Most of the best coaches in the country were at the Bulls,” he says. “I know because I spent 10 years getting them in.”

So it is the Bulls culture which dominates the national team.

This is largely a good thing. They are highly professional and dedicated. They are also modest, unassuming men who espouse another Meyer dictum: the Japanese philosophy of kaizen — continuous progress and improvement.

This is usually infinitesimal in scale but, incrementally, it amounts to a continuing capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and thus stay on top.

As in every workplace with a strong internal culture, there is the danger of narrowness: Afrikaans is too often used in team talks, which is alienating for black players.

The challenges Meyer faces now are different to those he faced at the Bulls: he does not have control over the workload or the game plans of his players when they are not on national duty.

But, being Heyneke Meyer, he has not let this defeat him. He has worked hard on his relationships with Super Rugby coaches in an attempt to get them to implement similar techniques, sending his specialist coaches to spend time with the Super Rugby franchises.

He has also achieved what no other Springbok coach has, which is an agreement that top Springboks will be periodically rested by their franchises in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup in September.

It’s all about winning, whatever it takes.

• This article first appeared in Business Day

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ONE of the most comprehensive makeovers of any South African sporting institution was undertaken by Heyneke Meyer at the turn of the century. He transformed the Blue Bulls from an underperforming, amateur outfit into a successful professional business. And he is building on the strategies honed at the Bulls to take the Springboks into the […]

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Springboks, the cash cows flogged to support a bloated Saru

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NOW that the Springboks’ disappointing performance last month has been thoroughly picked over, perhaps it is time to look at the contribution of rugby’s off-field team to this demoralising episode and, hopefully, learn some lessons from it.

Last year, the Springboks played 12 games. This year, an extra two were loaded on to what was already a heavy schedule. In the last, disastrous Wales game on November 29, the Boks looked worn out, which was hardly surprising. Most of them had been playing one high-intensity, all-or-nothing game after another since Super Rugby began in February, 10 months earlier. The effect of this on their bodies was brought home by the devastating injury suffered by Jean de Villiers, whom Heyneke Meyer had days earlier identified as the one man critical to SA’s chances of winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

To add to the problems, the large squad felt messy: there were too many players brought along for the ride, never even getting a shot at warming the bench. There were too many black faces in this contingent not to suspect some window-dressing. But for all the passengers in the squad, both black and white, it must have been a disheartening experience.

There were questions as to why Meyer didn’t include more newcomers in his match-day squads, particularly against Italy. I think the answer lies with the off-field team.

The performance indicators in Meyer’s contract are all about winning every game. Development — racial or otherwise — will not win him a second term.

So, why did the South African Rugby Union (Saru) insist on the Boks adding on the Wales game to their schedule after the international Test window was over? The risks of this additional burden outweighed any advantage to the team.

Next year is the most important year in world rugby. Surely preparation for that should have been uppermost in everyone’s minds?

The Boks had already played Wales twice this year, so they were not gaining experience against a little-known opponent. Meyer had already had three games in which to test players’ ability to adapt to wet weather. The inevitable downside — the damage done to the Springbok brand and to team morale by a humiliating loss that will haunt them for another six months until they get a chance to redeem themselves — is huge.

The answer is money. Saru was reportedly paid £750,000 for the Wales game. When Jurie Roux, the CEO of Saru, announced that the two additional games — against the World XV in June and Wales in November — he said the extra income earned would go towards funding preparations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Have the Springboks not already earned their keep, then? A look at Saru 2013 annual report shows its turnover for 2013 as just under R800m.

Almost of all Saru’s income is from two sources: sponsors — chief among them Absa — and the sale of broadcasting rights.

A mere R194m is allocated to “high performance”, the category that includes the Springboks, the Springbok Sevens and the Springbok Women’s team, and that sum is split among all three teams. So less than an eighth of Saru’s income goes to the team which attracts the bulk of it.

Springboks? Cash cows might be a more appropriate name. They are being flogged to the limit in order to keep afloat a bloated organisation.

My (very modest) New Year’s wishes for South African rugby are that:

• Saru transforms itself into a rational, streamlined, visionary organisation in which all its constituent parts forget self-interest and work together for the greater good of rugby;

• Saru sets the professionals free to get on with the business of producing world-beating teams that make all South Africans proud;

• The smaller unions and the clubs attached to the Super Rugby franchises stop living off the earnings of the professionals and dedicate themselves instead to semiprofessional and amateur rugby. They could have a huge role to play in restoring club rugby to its former glory — with all the concomitant benefits to the community — but for that to happen, they have to give up their pretensions of professionalism; and

• Saru and all its stakeholders think through what it means to be a flagship South African brand in 2015 and then formulate an effective policy to make it happen, starting from the top down. The Springbok coach needs to be contractually incentivised to select and develop a more racially diverse team, as do the Super Rugby coaches.

Saru should acknowledge that channelling development, particularly of black players, through its constituent unions does not work.

Saru should come up with a better plan for nurturing and promoting black rugby talent.

It is pointless waiting for the government to sort out education and school sport. Saru should take the lead.

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

 

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NOW that the Springboks’ disappointing performance last month has been thoroughly picked over, perhaps it is time to look at the contribution of rugby’s off-field team to this demoralising episode and, hopefully, learn some lessons from it. Last year, the Springboks played 12 games. This year, an extra two were loaded on to what was […]

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All Bok games for 2015 RWC are sold out

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TICKETS for the 2015 Rugby World Cup will go on general sale tomorrow, but the bad news for South Africans is that every Springbok game is already sold out.

However, some of these tickets will have been block-booked by travel agents for hospitality packages and those that remain unsold will come back onto the market next autumn.

If you want to be guaranteed a ticket, you could opt for one of these packages now, but they are not cheap. SA Rugby Travel, for instance, are still offering packages to pool games and the knockout games.

But just going to the Springboks’ first pool game against Japan in Brighton on September 19 will cost almost R20,000 and to that you have to add airport taxes, which will probably bring it to about R26,000. That covers only the flight and ticket. You still have to fork out for accommodation and travel within the UK.

Packages include tickets to the “bronze final” (the match between the runners-up) and the final, which are going for about R40,000, including airport tax. Again, that is just for a match ticket and a flight.

Meanwhile, the team that will carry our hopes and dreams in September and October next year is being crystallised. This Saturday’s game against Wales will be Heyneke Meyer’s last chance to assess individual players’ capacity to adapt to playing in northern conditions. The contenders for several Rugby World Cup positions look pretty settled but, in others, the competition is still fierce.

Some World Cup veterans currently playing in Japan — including JP Pietersen and Fourie du Preez  — are expected to return to SA next year, which will guarantee them selection.

European-based players such as Francois Louw and Schalk Britz have an edge because they will be familiar with northern playing conditions and the way the laws are applied.

Next year, for the first time, Rugby World Cup squads have been expanded from 30 to 31 to include an extra prop. Judging on previous selections, this is likely to boil down to a 17/14 split between forwards and backs.

The squad will probably include two each in the loosehead and tighthead positions and three hookers. Five players are likely to be chosen to cover the three loose-forward positions.

There are several old-timers and newcomers who could do the numbers six, seven and eight jerseys proud and Meyer will find it hard to choose between them. These positions tend to carry a high attrition rate in terms of injury, so a player’s ability to switch between them would come in useful. Versatility is also important in the back line, which means utility backs are favoured.

Another position that requires plenty of back-up is scrum-half, and usually three are included in the squad.

If the 2015 Rugby World Cup 31 were to be chosen now, this is what it would probably look like:

Loosehead props: Tendai Mtawarira and Trevor Nyakane, the latter having earmarked a place after his performance against Italy’s Martin Castrogiovanni.

Hookers: Bismarck du Plessis; Adriaan Strauss and Schalk Britz, largely because of the latter’s experience in playing in the north.

Tighthead props: Jannie du Plessis and Coenie Oosthuizen, with Frans Malherbe as an outside contender.

Locks: Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Flip van der Merwe and/or Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Loose-forwards:Incumbents are Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen. But Schalk Burger, Marcell Coetzee, Teboho Mohoje, Nizaam Carr and Siya Kolisi are all serious contenders. Mohoje can also cover lock.

Scrumhalves: Fourie du Preez, Cobus Reinach and Francois Hougaard.

Flyhalves: Pat Lambie and Handre Pollard.

Left wings: Bryan Habana, Lwazi Mvovo/Seabelo Senatla.

Inside centres: Jean de Villiers, who has also proved himself over the past three years to be the best man to lead the team through the World Cup; and Damian de Allende.

Outside centres: Jaque Fourie and Jan Serfontein.

Right wing: JP Pietersen, and Cornal Hendricks.

Fullback: Willie le Roux and Johan Goosen.

Several of the back line players can cover a number of positions, which increases their value. For instance, JP Pietersen is both wing and centre. Lambie can cover both fly-half and fullback, as can Johan Goosen. Lwazi Mvovo can cover both No 11 and No 15.

Our four pool games are fairly easy. Japan first, which should be a doddle.

Then Samoa in Birmingham, which is dangerous in terms of brutal play. Scotland comes next and a passionate home crowd in the gutsy northern city of Newcastle could spur the Scots on.

And, finally, the US — mighty in the real world but a pushover on the rugby field.

On October 17 come the quarterfinals, when everything could change.

 

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

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TICKETS for the 2015 Rugby World Cup will go on general sale tomorrow, but the bad news for South Africans is that every Springbok game is already sold out. However, some of these tickets will have been block-booked by travel agents for hospitality packages and those that remain unsold will come back onto the market […]

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Split the cost, double the value

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ONE hopes that the series of upsets that have characterised the Springboks’ first outings of the year bring a wake-up call to the mandarins of South African rugby. They are mismanaging their core asset — the players — and the consequences are plain for anyone who wants to see.

First, there was the disruption occasioned by Frans Steyn’s abandonment of the Springbok camp in Durban, apparently because the South African Rugby Union (Saru) had failed to honour contractual agreements with him.

Second, in Nelspruit came the horribly close brush with defeat to Wales, global rugby’s sixth-ranked team — on home ground, nogal — largely because our players were exhausted by the absurd amount of rugby they have already played this year.

Now the Boks face their third Test without several key players, who have been called back to their foreign clubs.

The reasons for this ever-increasing number of top players deserting the Boks to play abroad are well-documented: better pay, fewer games, less time away from home and a chance to see the world.

How this puts us at a disadvantage to our main rival — New Zealand — has also been much written about. The All Blacks are paid and managed centrally by the New Zealand Rugby Union, primarily for the good of the national team. Once contracted, they are not allowed to play in another country. In return, they are intelligently managed, with proper rest and regular rotation.

Our set-up is quite different. The primary employer here is the provincial unions, and they pay players between R600,000 and R4m per year.

Springboks earn an average of about R2m from their unions, although a handful earn double that.

This year, Saru has handed out a mere 17 Springbok contracts, so, only 17 of the current squad are on contracts and they earn between R1m and R1.5m a year on top of their provincial contracts, depending on their seniority. Players without Springbok contracts are paid match fees. Thus, if they are injured and cannot play, they do not get paid at all. If they play and win every Test, they can earn R1.5m.

The provincial unions see this system as unfair: they have to pay the bulk of the player’s salary yet they only get his services on the field for half the year because the second half is mostly taken up by Springbok duty. Saru compensates the unions with a mere R10,000 to R15,000 per player for each game he plays for the Boks. If a player incurs an injury while playing for the Boks and then has to have surgery followed by a lengthy recovery and rehabilitation period, the union will still have to fork out the bulk of his salary as well as that of a replacement player.

Take Bismarck du Plessis, for instance, who injured his knee in the first Rugby Championship game against Argentina in August 2012, and did not play again for almost a year.

The various unions put their own interests first and Saru plays its own game.

The price of this divisiveness is paid by the players and the national team, not the administrators who perpetuate this unworkable situation.

It is the main driver behind the increasingly popular option of dual contracts between provincial clubs and Japanese clubs, bypassing the national team, which then comes third in the pecking order.

There is an obvious solution here: Saru’s budget is R700m a year — more than enough to pay Springboks properly if administrators were to accord them the appropriate priority.

If central contracting a la the All Blacks is not possible, they ought to be initiating the next best thing: sitting down with the provincial unions and working out together how best they can manage their joint assets. If Bismarck du Plessis is worth R5m a year, this sum could be split between Saru and Western Province or the Sharks. Each should fork out R2.5m.

They should then agree on the number of games optimal for the player’s welfare and performance and then split that between them as well. Say 20 games a year in total — this means the Sharks would get him for 10 carefully selected Super Rugby games in the first half of the year and Heyneke Meyer would get him for 10 Tests in the latter half of the year.

If provincial unions — all of which struggle to survive financially — pay less for their top players because they are splitting the bill with Saru, they will have more money to contract new players. The benefits of this are that they will be able to bring more players through their systems, which would strengthen South African rugby as a whole.

In return, contracted Springboks would have to commit to playing here only. I suspect that, if properly paid and properly managed, most would be only too happy to do so.

*This column first appeared in Business Day

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ONE hopes that the series of upsets that have characterised the Springboks’ first outings of the year bring a wake-up call to the mandarins of South African rugby. They are mismanaging their core asset — the players — and the consequences are plain for anyone who wants to see. First, there was the disruption occasioned […]

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Springboks have a good chance of winning RWC2015

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The backdrop for the first big marketing push for the 2015 Rugby World Cup – at the Springbok museum at Cape Town’s Waterfront earlier this week – was a pair of mock Beefeaters, a cardboard cut-out of Big Ben and plates of bangers and mash. In contrast to these twee symbols of Little England was the soundtrack: London’s Calling by the seventies punk group, The Clash. Despite its grim warnings of nuclear holocaust and environmental devastation, it offered one of the more compelling reasons for South Africans to fork out their rapidly weakening rands to accompany the Springboks to Britain next September.

Firstly, because there is a good chance that they might be able to bask in the glory of a triumphant home team, aligned with the conquering heroes of the day in one of the most competitive and challenging cities in the world.

And secondly, because it is such a stimulating place to be. One in four Londoners was born outside Britain.  Successive waves of migrants – the latest being East Europeans – make this city a great example of successful multi-culturalism.  London Calling is about looking outward, rather than inward. It is a good example to South Africans, so obsessively preoccupied with our own issues.  A few weeks in London will put our problems in perspective: they are pretty similar to those of many other countries and we are doing as well as any in dealing with them.

I’m optimistic about our chances of winning mainly because of Heyneke Meyer’s single-minded focus, his attention to detail and the fact that he knows how to win which, in the end, is all that counts. I’ve watched how, over the past couple of years, he has identified problems and then, quietly and effectively, dealt with them. In the first year, the weakness was in the breakdown so he tracked down the leading breakdown expert – Scotland’s Richie Gray – to sort it out. Last year, he brought back Bakkies Botha – and now Victor Matfield – to counter the inexperience  in the second row. Pieter Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth are hugely talented but still very young.  And Etzebeth’s towering presence at the Springbok museum the other day testified to the need for depth:  he expressed his deep frustration at being unable to join his Stormers team-mates in Australia because of a broken bone in his foot. Du Toit, meanwhile, has succumbed to a season-ending injury.

Meyer appears to be reassembling the winning 2007 RWC squad: Jean de Villiers, Matfield, Botha, Jaque Fourie, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis.  He knows that, under the intense pressure of a World Cup, experience and tried and tested on-field combinations – team-mates with long histories of playing together – make the difference.  He has had to resist constant public and media pressure to co-opt every bright young spark who lights up the latest Currie Cup or Super Rugby campaign – the Lions’ fly-half, Marnitz Boshoff being the most recent.  It is over many seasons that a player’s mettle is tested and he becomes sufficiently battle-hardened to take on the biggest challenge of all.

 

At the moment, we are second in the International Rugby Board’s global rankings, which means our pool games should be a walk in the park.

The first is against Japan in Brighton; then we take on Samoa in Birmingham, followed by Scotland in Newcastle. From then on, it’s all in London. Where it gets interesting is the quarter finals at Twickenham where are likely to face either England, with its home ground advantage, or Australia, the team which bounced us out of the last Rugby World Cup.

If we get through the quarters unscathed – and there is every chance we will given our recent record against both these teams –  we are likely to come up against the All Blacks, current world champions, in the semi-finals. If we manage to beat them, we are home and dry for the finals.  This year’s two Rugby Championship games against the All Blacks are critical: we need to be able to show we are capable of consistently beating them.

I’d advise anyone with a bit of spare cash to consider booking a ticket to London next year: the advantage of the packages now on offer courtesy of a SARU joint venture with a travel company is that you are guaranteed tickets to games. But, starting at R16,700 for just a flight and tickets to two games: the opening game – England against Oceania – and our first game against Japan, they are quite steep. If you can get a ticket through your rugby club next month or when sales open to the general public this September, the cheapest seat will cost you only 20 pounds.

Tickets to the quarters and semi-finals are likely to be much harder to come by so, if that is what you are aiming for, it might be worth considering a package.

Throw in the fact that September and October are Britain’s most pleasant months and there is every reason to heed the call from London.

This column first appeared in Business Day

McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The backdrop for the first big marketing push for the 2015 Rugby World Cup – at the Springbok museum at Cape Town’s Waterfront earlier this week – was a pair of mock Beefeaters, a cardboard cut-out of Big Ben and plates of bangers and mash. In contrast to these twee symbols of Little England was […]

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Meyer’s sharp, focused Boks

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An edge-of-field conversation with one of the Springbok coaches summed up the core of this squad: incessant evaluation and self scrutiny. After every game, each player’s performance is reviewed for  errors, work rate,  discipline.  Video footage spotlights each slip-up.  Never mind the millions of couch critics judging his performance on the TV screen.  And this after 80 minutes of high velocity Test rugby which leaves him physically and mentally exhausted. Even if he is pleased with his performance, self-satisfaction can only be fleeting because there is another big Test coming up in a few days’ time and the whole process must start all over again.  It is in this crucible that character is forged.

The individual ego gives way to the team: as evidenced in man-of-the-match Willie de Roux’s deft left-footed chip kick to JP Pietersen last week to gift the latter a try to celebrate his 50th Springbok cap. “I saw him coming up on the wing and thought: I owe him one,” explained Le Roux afterwards.

Their off-field behavior is also impressive: to a man, they are modest, courteous and  disciplined.

As Heyneke Meyer pointed out after announcing his team for Saturday’s game against France, there has not been one incident of off-field indiscipline in the past two years.  This is in sharp contrast to the Wallabies, who have just red-carded six players for excessive drinking.

In Edinburgh, the team hotel was in the centre of the party district, ringed by lively pubs and clubs. Here, the team hotel is in Montparnasse, again surrounded by fleshly temptations.  But I’ve no doubt they will manage to resist them because they are very aware of how high the price would be if they didn’t. We’re not here on holiday or to sight-see, said Meyer firmly.

Travelling in relatively close proximity to the Springbok squad through some of the great cities of Europe does wonders for one’s sense of national pride.  For a start, they display an open and unabashed patriotism: they speak constantly of playing for their country; of their love for their country; of their determination to make their fellow South Africans proud.  Which they certainly do: wherever they play, they are respected and feared.  They gild our reputation with a world-beating excellence.

Heyneke Meyer, together with team manager, Ian Schwarz, runs a very tight, well-managed operation.  And, so far, it has paid off. If the Boks win this Saturday, Meyer will be on a par with Nick Mallett as the second most successful Springbok coach of the post-isolation era.  Kitch Christie had a 100% record in 1994 but he only presided over 14 games.  In the two years Meyer has been in charge, his team will have won just over 70% of their games.

He is a man with a  plan which, he says, is a simple one. “You just have to execute better than they do.” You have to get your defence right; have an attacking mind-set and be able to read the game.

In contrast to Peter de Villiers, his predecessor, Meyer is very clear that he is in charge and that he will make selections.  He consults the players but he will make the final decision and take responsibility for it.  One can see the benefits of this:  each player is clear about his role and what is expected of him. So joint hookers and vice captains, Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss, for example, know which of them will start when and what the pecking order between them is.

Although Meyer always talks about the next game being the only important one, it is clear that the 2015 Rugby World Cup is constantly on his mind.  The freezing rain in which the Boks played at Murrayfield was welcome because those are the conditions under which they are likely to play their World Cup games.

It’s a slower game than most played in the southern hemisphere. And the forwards dominate. A team will win or lose on the strength of its set pieces. So a lot of work is put into perfecting line-outs and scrums, although the latter are constantly bedeviled by pot-holed pitches and erratic refereeing.

Big, blond Duane Vermeulen said yesterday he was approaching Saturday’s game, as he did every game, as if it might be his last.  He knows, from successive years of brutal injuries, how high is the risk in every one of these bone-crunching Tests and how hard it is to work one’s way back into the green and gold jersey after months of  languishing on the sidelines, recuperating from operations.

The players all say this about every game – and the result is a performance of passionate intensity.  This is what Meyer cultivates because, come 2015, there will be little to choose in terms of conditioning and training between the top teams and the edge will go to the one who wants it most.

 

*This column appeared first appeared in Business Day

 

*McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be  a Bok (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An edge-of-field conversation with one of the Springbok coaches summed up the core of this squad: incessant evaluation and self scrutiny. After every game, each player’s performance is reviewed for  errors, work rate,  discipline.  Video footage spotlights each slip-up.  Never mind the millions of couch critics judging his performance on the TV screen.  And this […]

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