Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer should take a page or two out of Gary Kirsten’s coaching book, writes Rob Peters.
They came into their jobs with similar fanfare, both had heavy-hitting reputations after achieving great success with their previous teams, and both were expected to deliver immediate results upon being appointed. But while Gary Kirsten has lived up to expectations with the Proteas, Heyneke Meyer has enjoyed little success in his role to date.
It is early days for Meyer, but I can’t help comparing the approach of the men tasked with two of the toughest jobs in South African sport. The Bok coach would do well to take note of what made Kirsten such a success with India, and with the Proteas since he took over last year.
Kirsten is not afraid to veer from the tried and tested. His decision to send the side on a team-building exercise in the Swiss Alps before their tour of England raised some eyebrows, but after a hugely successful tour – which culminated with the Proteas being elevated to the number one spot in Test cricket – it is hard to argue against it.
Kirsten has brought in fresh new voices and people from outside the cricket world to work with the team. Adventurer Mike Horn proved an inspirational choice to cut through the mental barriers the team has long had, and on the face of it at least, the Proteas look a far more relaxed and confident outfit than ever before.
With the help of mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton and the likes of Horn, Kirsten has instilled a dynamic new approach and combined precocious talents with seasoned campaigners to form a formidable team across all three formats of the game.
That is not to say that the former Proteas opener shirks his responsibilities as coach. His technical know-how is top drawer and his eye for detail and work ethic is well documented, but he does not shackle his players. Rather, he allows them to trust their instincts and play their natural game.
Kirsten is a breath of fresh air in a country where coaches have long struggled to move away from their “traditional” strengths and old-school structures.
In contrast, Meyer’s tenure has to date been marked by conservatism and the resistance to change.
No sooner had he taken the job than the Bok coach was talking about taking the team back to their traditional strengths and relying on a conservative gameplan (again based on traditional SA rugby ideals) to take the team forward.
How exactly a team can move forward when going backwards is anybody’s guess, but Meyer has refused to budge, despite the poor results his plan has to show for it.
It is a laager mentality and a worrying one. Backing yourself is a positive, but so is admitting when you’ve make mistakes. Meyer said he made a mistake by not subbing Morne Steyn as kicker against the All Blacks over the weekend, but he continues to defend his decision to select the player in the first place, despite the latter showing little improvement – both in his kicking and general play.
His defence of Steyn is made up of the usual clichés: Steyn is mentally tough, he will bounce back, he has done it in the past and you don’t just toss away an experienced player because of a few bad games.
Meyer continues to rely on the traditional approach. Bully the opposition into submission and size wins out over creativity every time. He considers talk of a “Plan B” as “philosophical” and “romanticised”, because if “Plan A” isn’t working, well that’s because you’re not doing it properly.
We have seen all of this before and so has the opposition. The game moves forward, but the Bok coach seems determined to remain stuck in the past.
Yes, it is easy to applaud the coach of a team that is winning and Kirsten did take charge of a team full of experience – a luxury not afforded to Meyer - but it is his approach to the job that is so refreshing. While many seek to fall back on what worked in the past, Kirsten is looking forward to ensure future triumphs - and it’s a strategy that’s succeeding.