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