Head up, face pointed resolutely toward the heavens, eyes tightly shut and arms proudly at his side. It’s a picture that screams passion, commitment and sheer love of country.
It’s match day, the mighty Springboks are set for battle, and coach Heyneke Meyer is in full cry as South Africans sing their national anthem as one. Indeed, he is the orchestra conductor, pride and patriotism emanating from every pore. It’s an indelible image, synonymous with the game in South Africa today. Heyneke Meyer is patriotic to the hilt…
Often seen as Mr Cool, Calm and Collected himself, in Brisbane last year he showed South Africa, and the world, a side to his character that not many had seen before. During that memorable 38-12 thumping of the Aussies in their own backyard, our main man went into almost acrobatic mode, leaping up and down and screaming joyfully into his radio – a sight many South African rugby fans will remember for years to come.
Which is not to suggest for a minute that Meyer is a hysterical coach, prone to absurd outbursts of emotion. Indeed, during his tenure thus far, he has shown great composure under pressure and a willingness to take responsibility on his own broad shoulders.
Confidence, charm and professionalism
Leadership sat down with this Springbok coach with a voracious appetite for victory, to find out more about his leadership style and rugby philosophy.
He has one of the toughest jobs in world rugby (South African fans DON’T like losing), yet he’s the kind of guy who can put you at ease without you even knowing it, epitomising confidence, charm and professionalism, with not the slightest inkling of arrogance.
Meyer was appointed as Springbok coach in 2012, when Pieter de Villiers’ tenure came to an end. A number of Springbok stalwarts retired from international rugby following the country’s controversial exit from the 2011 Rugby World Cup at the hands of Australia or, more to the point, the whistle of Bryce Lawrence.
A rebuilding phase was about to begin under Meyer’s guidance, and his appointment was met with some criticism, as was his first squad. Subsequent team selections have also come in for their fair share of flack, although this has diluted as his reign at the helm gained momentum.
No Springbok coach can, or ever will, escape such carping, even downright opprobrium, and Meyer will no doubt one day leave the scene just as he entered it—with criticism raining down from various quarters.
But few would deny that he has gone a long way in proving some of his naysayers wrong, and a victory over the All Blacks in 2014 (a thus far unattainable achievement) will go a long way toward silencing his detractors even more.
“Criticism is always tough,” says Meyer. “People say you don’t get affected by it, but you do. It’s tough, but as long as I can look at myself in the mirror and say that I did the best for the team and country, and that my integrity is intact, then I’m happy.”
The most frequent criticism is that he favours Bulls players in the Springbok squad, due to his long and successful history with the franchise. The stats, however, tell a very different story, revealing that Meyer has in fact selected fewer Bulls players than any of his predecessors.
Others took exception to Meyer’s selection of assistants and other staff from the Bulls’ setup, people with whom he had worked with for years as coach of the franchise.
He proffers a simple yet logical explanation: “I didn’t pick them because I thought they were my friends. They were picked because I have worked with some of them for 10 to 15 years. I brought them to the Bulls because I believed they were the best at the time. Why would I change my mind now?”
These selections, he says, “were probably the best decisions I have made since coming in as Springbok coach. For me, trust is a non-negotiable.”
He adds, “You need a coaching staff that believes in your vision. It’s like a magnifying glass: all your energy needs to be put in one area. You cannot have people pulling in different directions because that will lead to a split in the squad.”
His vision as a leader, he says, has always been that everyone—from the guy cutting the grass, to the assistants and players—must be looking in the same direction. “This is why I picked people who I know back me 100%.”
But on the question of his staff selections, again, perceptions can be faulty. He has selected numerous non-Bulls people, including Louis Koen, Pieter de Villiers and Sharne Roux – all from Western Province.
The year-on-year improvement of the Springboks under Meyer is also testament to his astute staff selection and he is full of praise for his back-room team. Assistant coaches, says Meyer, “are often more important than the head coach, as they are on the field while you are up in the box.”
South African rugby is unique, in that supporters are generally very loyal to their home franchise/province. This has its positives and negatives, and much of the criticism Springbok coaches receive stems from this narrow provincialism.
It creates a culture of bias among supporters, which eventually leads to criticism of Springbok team selections. Meyer believes this approach divides people’s opinions, but he never loses sight of the fact that the supporters are behind the players.
Again, it’s all about perceptions. People believe what they want to believe and, says Meyer, “as a leader, I don’t want to go out and use energy on trying to change perceptions because you’re never going to do it.”
Leaders, he says, “have to look at the horizon and see how you can move forward.”
“As a coach, it is your head on the block and I say to the guys all the time: I am loyal to performance. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old. If I believe you can do the job, I will pick you.”
Dealing with criticism
A leader, any leader, will face criticism on most days, and it’s no different for Meyer. Millions of fans across South African expect positive results week in and week out, and meeting these expectations can be tough, indeed.
“There will always be those who disagree with you, your selections or your game plan, but as a leader, you must have the conviction to make decisions,” he says.
Meyer reckons decision making is probably the most important part of a leader’s function. “You have to have the confidence to make tough calls and then stick with them; you must believe in yourself and your ability to make the correct decision for the team.”
During his time with the Springboks, Meyer has made some pretty tough decision, ones that haven’t always sat well with fans. But the reality is that not everyone will always like you. “It would be nice if they did, but generally, if you are liked by all, you are not showing true leadership,” he says.
At the end of the day, says Meyer, people can say what they like, “but it’s my job to put the team out on the field on Saturday. It’s not their team playing. If I fail, at least I will know I did it the way I believed was best.”
Leading from the front
But for Meyer, it’s not about being liked. “What I do care about is that people respect me.”
He refers to a study that suggests that while it can be beneficial to be charismatic and imaginative as a leader, the quality people most want in their leaders is honesty; “and I am brutally honest with my players.
“I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can tell you that the quickest way to fail is to try and please everybody,” he says.
With Meyer, even as I speak to him, it is clear that there are no grey areas in his makeup. It is clear that he loves talking about leadership and the confidence with which he speaks could make you feel like his way is the only way—of course, it isn’t. Meyer is tough and he wants his team to reflect that personality. He wants them to be a confident unit that doesn’t feel the need to stand back for anyone, but he also wants his players to reflect the right attitude off the field—an attitude that compliments South Africa and the Springboks.
Many aspire to be in a leadership position, but it’s not always the easiest position to be. Meyer likens the leadership role to that of an eagle when he says, “you fly high and you fly alone.”
O captain, my captain
When asked about his choice of Jean de Villiers as Springbok captain, Meyer doesn’t miss a beat: “A captain is the extension of the coach’s personality; it is very important for the captain to have the same viewpoint as the coach, so that we all keep pulling in the same direction.”
Unlike the Boks’ previous two coaches, Meyer refrained from selecting a captain for a four-year period, instead making it public knowledge that because he is “loyal to performance”, De Villiers will need to earn his place in the team every season before being confirmed as captain—a promise he has stuck to so far.
He spent a lot of time with De Villiers before making his decision, as he was determined to choose someone he could trust to understand what he wants as coach. “I wanted a good guy with a clean-cut image who understands the game the way I do.
“When you are in the coach’s box, you want someone on that field whom you can trust to take your message across 100%, and Jean has been brilliant with that.”
Meyer also gives De Villiers a lot of credit for the way he has handled every squad. De Villiers, he says, can be the newcomers’ best friend, while at the same time be very hard on even the most experienced player in the group.
“He is an ambassador on and off the field—and for me, that is leadership,” says the coach.
“Back when I made the decision to give him the captaincy, I believed it was a good decision, but now I believe it was a great decision—he is truly a feather in South Africa’s cap.”
A golden era
But De Villiers, of course, can’t do everything on his own. As in any area of endeavour, leaders need assistance from others, and Meyer has often referred to the leadership core within the Springbok setup.
South African rugby appears to be entering a golden era as an abundance of young talent emerges through the ranks in most positions. But where are the future leaders, players who can carry the mantle of the John Smit’s and Jean de Villiers’s of this world into this exciting new age of Springbok rugby?
Fear not: they are scattered right through the current Bok setup.
Loose forward Arno Botha, who is currently injured, is one name that springs readily to mind, and Meyer rates him highly.
“We definitely have young leaders who can take over the mantle. Arno has great talent and good leadership skills, but is unfortunately injured. Another guy whom I have a lot of confidence in is Handré Pollard,” he says.
“I have handed Pollard the responsibility of making our calls now, because I believe he is good enough to do it,” he adds.
Jan Serfontein, who has been on Meyer’s radar since he was 16, is also believed to be a good leader, while the more experienced players Meyer singles out include Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw and Patrick Lambie.
The Springboks have many experienced players in the setup currently, but Meyer says the “leadership core” is not only limited to experienced players, or players of a particular age.
“I believe you get born leaders, but you also get made leaders; leadership is built through hardships, which teaches people character.”
Everyone needs to show some sort of leadership, he says. If you want to be part of a team, you have to be able to lead and keep yourself disciplined.
Players are not asked to become part of the leadership core within the Springbok group; “they automatically come to the fore”.
Meyer explains why this leadership core is so important: “I believe that about 70% of the group needs to be leaders if you want to win the World Cup. Good leaders come to the fore when the pressure is on, as that is when character is required—you need to be able to stand up and perform.”
A great believer
Even though Meyer is a great believer in discipline, this does not mean he is authoritarian (fear not, we won’t be having any ‘Kamp Staaldraads’ under his reign). Indeed, his leadership style places the emphasis on empowering his players and trusting that they will make the correct decisions.
“I don’t have any rules,” he says. “When you have too many rules, you end up being a manager and not a leader. I don’t check on the players and I don’t care what they are doing, as long as they conduct themselves in a way where they represent their country and family—that’s what makes you a professional.”
He continues: “If they do step out of line, I don’t fire them, I don’t even warn them—I just don’t play them.”
Meyer works on the philosophy that if he trusts his players, they will do their utmost not to let him down. By doing this, players don’t only feel they have some freedom, but they also feel empowered to make their own choices.
As a leader, Meyer has proved himself to be hard when needed, but he says he treats his players like he’d want someone to treat his three sons—hard and honest.
However, he observes that players also go through tough times and personal issues, and one needs to be able to support such players during these periods.
There is no doubt that Meyer’s task has been aided by the experienced players in the squad. While much young talent is emerging from around the country, there is no substitute for experience—as long as it is still good enough to make the cut.
A lot of criticism has been thrown Meyer’s way for bringing back numerous older stars since his tenure began, especially with the return of stalwart Victor Matfield this year.
But the coach takes full responsibility for the decision to bring Matfield out of retirement. “I must admit, I knew there would be criticism and I almost didn’t do it. After it didn’t work the first or second year, I thought maybe it wasn’t worth it. But then I thought of the World Cup and realised that if I didn’t win the World Cup, I didn’t want to regret not being strong-minded enough.”
Contrary to what some believed, Meyer didn’t promise Matfield a place in the Springbok group. Like everyone else, he still had to earn it by playing Super 15 and, differing opinions notwithstanding, he performed well and got stronger toward the end of the campaign. In other words, he fully deserved his place in the Springbok team.
Other, more experienced players have also made their way back into the squad. Fourie du Preez, Bakkies Botha, Jaque Fourie and, more recently, Schalk Burger are among them. And all of these selections have elicited criticism.
What supporters don’t always see, though, is the value that experience brings. They don’t see who makes what decisions on the field of play. Meyer explains: “Young players are often great, but because they are so inexperienced, their only concern is their own performance, while the more experienced players can concentrate on their own game and organise other players to make sure they are in the correct positions.
While Meyer says he does get angry sometimes when the criticism is harsh, he understands that it is part of leadership.
At the Bulls, Meyer took his time, building the team from the ground up, and a lot of today’s successes at Loftus can still be attributed to him, thanks to the structures he put in place.
“That is what good leadership is all about,” says Meyer. “Once you leave a place, those structures need to stand firm. If they collapse, it was not good leadership. This is what I am trying to build with the Springboks.”
The mistake many coaches make is that once they get into a top position, as Meyer is in at the Springboks, they stop doing the things that made them successful in the first place.
Meyer, however, wasn’t going to fall into that trap, despite the manifold pressures that come with the job. “Why would I change what got me here? It doesn’t make sense,” he says. “I will take my chances with what has made me successful.”
South African rugby fans often get irritated when the coach starts talking about “the four-year plan” in the run-up to the World Cup. Springbok rugby is about much more than that: fans demand results during those four years, too.
Meyer says while it is important to build for the future, and the World Cup particularly, you need to get results every year. “If you only plan for the World Cup, it tells the players that results don’t matter in between, and then you never get 100%.”
The World Cup, he says, can be won or lost by a forward pass or a simple penalty, “and we can’t throw all our eggs in that basket.”
There have been coaches before Meyer and there will be coaches after him. He is not the knight in shining armour, nor does he want to be. He has, however, carried himself in exemplary fashion since his tenure began and has avoided controversy at every turn.
He makes no bones about the fact that he cares about his team, and about the results they seek. His record has been excellent so far, the only blemish being that the Boks haven’t beaten the All Blacks under his reign—yet. But that Meyer has been a credit to South African rugby, no one could deny. His ability to stay calm amid the storm is testament to his accomplished leadership style.
“I believe I am the light switch to the organisation,” he says, “I always have to be positive, always look for improvement and try to be in a good mood.
“My behaviour rubs off on the players, just as the boss’ behaviour rubs off on his/her staff in a company. If you want people to be positive and behave in a good manner, you have to lead by example.” And when it comes to example, Heyneke Meyer has set the bar high, indeed.