There’s something deliciously gruff about Steve Hansen and something gloriously barmy about Heyneke Meyer. Talk about being as dry as chalk and as mad as cheese.
To Hansen, everything is gushingly “amazing” and “unbelievable”.
In his Springboks’ coaching box, Meyer is so jack-in-the-box animated that he dies a million deaths in there until he can emerge victorious and, like last week, bury his tearful face into his assistant’s chest before emerging to tell the world he just wants to kiss his captain Fourie du Preez.
Then, he talks 10 to the dozen about how this World Cup is full of great coaches apart from him, making it sound as if he is nothing to do with what just happened.
You look at him, as Hansen does, and wonder how he has hasn’t had a heart attack. Losing to Japan would have been a calamity for any Springbok coach but for this emotional open book it can only have been hell on earth.
Then there’s Hansen. The sort of bloke Kiwis respect; down to earth, solid, ex-Christchurch copper who uses one word when ex-teacher and Woolworths manager Meyer would use a thousand.
Shock, horror! Hansen actually stirred from his seat in the box when New Zealand scored against France last week. Typically, he subsequently sounded a bit embarrassed by it.
They make the unlikeliest of chums, especially while weighed down by the rarefied pressures of having to direct the fortunes of the two mightiest rugby nations on earth.
Yet whoever wins their World Cup semi-final today will visit the crestfallen loser afterwards and give him, as their friendship dictates, a cold beer. Actually, make that a crate of cold beer.
You see, says Meyer, some things are more important than a mere game. Like true respect and friendship. When Meyer and his family were taking abuse that no man should have to accept after the Japan defeat, he was humbled by a text of support from Hansen, who told him about the time he was Wales coach and was voted the third most hated man in the land after a long losing streak. Thanks, Meyer doubtless responded, but at least that was better than being the first most hated man in South Africa.
In an era when professional sport is infected by silly sledging and tedious trash talk, the pair’s relationship is so civilised, that it actually rubs off on the way their teams treat each other off the field.
“You’d think I’d sit here and bad mouth them and try to get into their heads and say bad things but you won’t see that from us or them,” says Meyer.
“Their guys come over to our dressing room. Richie McCaw was the first to congratulate and feel for Jean (de Villiers) when he retired. That’s great for the countries.” It’s actually great for the game too. Nothing about the intensity of rugby’s “ultimate fixture”, as All Blacks centre Conrad Smith calls it, has changed one iota since the days when prop Boy Louw, a towering figure in the legendary 1937 Springbok side which became the first to win a series in New Zealand, declared solemnly: “When South Africa plays New Zealand, consider your country at war.”
If you remember Bismarck du Plessis’s seismic hit on Dan Carter and the melee that followed at Eden Park a few years ago, you will understand why Hansen, deflecting all the praise from Meyer about his All Blacks being “the best team ever”, reckoned his “cunning old devil” of a mate was trying to kill them all with kindness “while getting ready to rip our heads off.” Since both were appointed in 2012, Meyer has only once got the better of Hansen but the seven collisions between their teams have for the main part been close, thunderous and exhilarating. Two recent tests at Ellis Park — the Boks’ 27-25 win last October and the Blacks’ 38-27 win in 2013 — are among the most fantastic test matches played in any era.
Perhaps that’s the best tribute to the two coaches.
Hansen had an unenviable task in raising a bar already set so high by his World Cup-winning predecessor Graham Henry but losing just three of 52 tests since suggests he has, emphatically.
As for Meyer, his reign has been chaotic but a man who has done everything possible to hone his coaching expertise, from teaching and taking a psychology degree to studying to become a personal trainer, has never stopped trying to find a way to smash this great side. Meyer thinks he has the hardest job in rugby and Hansen wouldn’t disagree. Meyer has been called everything from a racist, to a disgrace to his country, to the world’s worst coach. He’s none of those things, just a bloke who “gets so stuck into the job, it’s life and death”.
If he loses today, Meyer knows it’s rugby death. If Hansen loses, he understands that in the eyes of a nation which demands nothing less than the unique achievement of a successful defence of the crown, he will be seen to have failed. Yet, actually, aren’t they both winners?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved