Rugby World Cup
The Heyneke Meyer Interview: Pressure, keeping a distance and uniting South Africa
Tom Hamilton
September 15, 2015
South Africa arrive at Heathrow Airport

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- ESPN's rugby editor, Tom Hamilton, sat down with Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer to talk success, pressure, why he is never friends with players, transformation and the unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

What does the Springboks coaching job mean to you?

Like any nation it's an unbelievable honour, but the one thing that makes it tough being a Boks coach is that you carry the hopes and dreams of a nation. When you lose, the whole place goes into a slump on the Monday. It's a unifier for the whole country. Everyone supports the Springboks from the bottom of their hearts.

You have to make a difference to people's lives. Someone like Bakkies [Botha], he was a rough diamond but when he thought he was at the end of his career he gave me a jersey and said I had made a big difference in his life. It was just before the 2007 Rugby World Cup. As a coach I always wanted to coach at the highest level but I always wanted to really make a difference.

I read a piece about a guy called Andrew Carnegie. He was a millionaire in the '50s. He had 100 millionaires working for him and he said the secret of life is that people are like the mining business -- once you take layers and layers of dirt off them, you will find the gold nugget. You can nurture that.

In South Africa there's always pressure on the coach, and it's almost like a religion here. People believe that when you're a Springbok, you're almost invincible. It's a huge privilege and an honour.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer during a portrait session at The Cullinan hotel
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer during a portrait session at The Cullinan hotel© Shaun Roy/Gallo Images for ESPN

Do you hold an almost paternal role within the setup?

To stay at the top of the game, you have to have a love of the people in a poetic sense. I think that's why you see some guys struggle to go from playing to coaching. As a player you have the limelight and the coaching staff does whatever they can do to make you successful. I believe the coaches should stay in the background, nurture the players and do whatever it takes to make you better human beings. The players then, when they stop playing, have to realise they are there to serve as coaches. You have to stand back, it's not about you.

I've never been friends with players, they've never been to my house and I've never been out with them. I believe there should be a distance with mutual respect. But it's great when the players come back and say I have made a difference in their life. Trophies last for 10 or so years but players hopefully feel you have made an impact on their lives. I'll give you an example. I remember coaching Tom Youngs at Leicester when he was a centre. And I said to him "What do you want to achieve?" and he said "I want to play for England." Well, I said "You're not going to do that in the centres" but I asked him to trust me as I believed he would play for England if he moved to hooker. It's hard, as with players, when you're coach, it doesn't normally end well as you drop them. But his parents wrote me a lovely letter saying "We thought you were a crazy South African but now Tom has played for England so we want to thank you." That's the reason why I coach. I know that sounds like a PR exercise but trophies stay in the memory for a bit but it's other things like Tom Youngs and Bakkies who stay with you forever.

Is the Boks job the hardest in world rugby?

It is the toughest job in world rugby. I think if you look at the way our system works and the way we don't have central contract systems and because of isolation there's a big, big support at regional level. But whoever you pick, people will question it. Guys from the Bulls want players from the Bulls so there's a lot of provincialism. We only get the players a week before a Test match. The All Blacks and England have good systems; the players are more available there. The supporters here truly believe the Springboks can't lose, they believe our winning record is 80 percent-plus when it is actually about 62 percent.

Heyneke Meyer speaks to ESPN
Heyneke Meyer speaks to ESPN© Shaun Roy/Gallo Images for ESPN

Can you ever switch off from the job?

I don't switch off. There are other factors here. I've had a lot of meetings with Steve [Hansen] but here you have to focus on other things as well. What makes it more difficult is that a lot of our guys play in Europe and Japan and their insurance is different so you have to struggle with those issues. The clubs don't want to release them so availability is a problem. And then the conditioning is also a problem as there are different seasons ... Whatever I say, I'll get in trouble. I speak from the heart it's difficult.

What about the issue of transformation?

It's part of the job but it's difficult for me to talk about. We have a responsibility to bring the best players through, I'm part of that and that's what we aim for.

The end goal ... well, we have a lot of talented guys coming through, we have to give guys the opportunity, nurture them and get them a Test cap. They all play on merit.

Are you at your peak now as a coach?

I love the honour of coaching. I was assistant in the 1999 World Cup but once you're in the job, you realise how tough it is. I think you can always learn and improve and whenever I can I go to other coaches and learn from them. Rugby changes every six months, if you think you've nailed it, that's when you're under pressure. I thought I'd never go for a specialist openside flanker because the game has changed in Super Rugby as you will get 10 penalties against you and win one ball so you may as well let them have the ball and defend. But in the World Cup we will mainly have Northern Hemisphere referees and it is a different game. The breakdown is a free-for-all and the scrummaging is different. Just when you think you've cracked it, you're back to square one. It's evolving.

If you look at all the game plans in the world, there isn't a huge difference between them. For me coaching is about the individual, the player. Winning teams are always happy, they sacrifice for each other and they are fit. Winning trophies is not about the coaching; it's about getting the players to play for you. When I was a youngster, people said rugby would never turn professional but I believed it would. So I did a psychology degree, I did a personal trainer degree for the conditioning and I did a year's teaching for that side. Whatever I studied was to be a coach. I was one of the first full-time coaches.

You need to know how to test your players. Some guys want to see pictures, some guys you need to be hard on and some guys you should just leave. It's a fallacy when they say treat every player the same; you need to know how to get the best out of people.

You have to be a little crazy to do this job. It does get to you and to your family. Social media gets everywhere as people send stupid photos of me or something like that to my kids. The only thing that would stop me coaching is my family life.

What drives you?

I have very simple taste. I surround myself with the best and I like to build world-class systems. We have to show hope out there. We have to show South Africa can compete at the highest level. If we could win the World Cup it could be a massive thing for South Africa. It would give us another five or six great years going forward. This team can unite the country; people get behind the team. We need a team that keeps on winning.

Heyneke Meyer
Heyneke Meyer© Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

What do you think of when the South African anthem is playing?

Well, you've worked really hard to be there, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. In 1999, I flew in for my boy's birth and then flew back. I saw him for about one month that whole year because after the Rugby World Cup I went straight to the Stormers and my family was in George. You have to come back and believe in yourself after getting fired. So you think of the sacrifices and how you can make a difference. It is an unbelievably proud moment. I grew up as a proud South African and even now when you sing the anthem it brings tears to your eyes as you know what it means to the country.

I don't like it when they film you in the coaches' box, I don't like it all. It should be about the players but we are contractually obliged to put that camera in the box so I try to put it off but they've warned us we will get fined if I continue doing that. I get so stuck into it, it's life or death.

Last year I coached a primary school team. When you teach the kids, that's the hardest task. It's nothing like coaching the Boks. But it's also easy as if they have bad habits, you teach them and they learn so quickly. My son Luke was playing, the guys were 11 and 12, so there I put in patterns and they picked it up immediately. They were unbeaten and they won the regional competition. They weren't superstars but I was just as nervous watching them as I was the Boks. 

What are your memories of the 1995 World Cup?

In 1995 I couldn't get tickets. Every now and then I do some corporate speaking but I use that as an example. I always think that it's like a magnifying glass. If you focus it on one area, then all your energy goes through that and you can start a fire and take over the world. But if you don't have that centre then you won't get results. I always knew I wanted to be a coach and I always wanted to coach the Springboks. I said that at school when I was 16. They all laughed but I knew I was going to do it. I was the head boy and you had to give your goals in front of a leadership group.

In South Africa, in those days, you had to be an ex-Springbok or in the military or you had to be a professor in a university to be a coach. I didn't have any of them.

I knew that when the game became professional, I needed to be in the best position. I used to sit and watch teams train. Whenever I went to class they said "Rugby won't be a profession," but they gave me an honorary medal at my university the other year as I'm Springboks coach. In 1995 I was a teacher and in those two years I joined Woolworths and learned a lot about management there. So in 1995 I decided I was going to go to the World Cup in 1999. I couldn't afford it but three and a half years later I was forwards coach for the Springboks. Three and a half years earlier I was teaching my school team. I was a nobody, but if I can do it, then anyone can. Most of the forwards in that World Cup were older than me. I came from nowhere.

© Tom Hamilton
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

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