OPINION: Heyneke Meyer: staring into the abyss
The sunken eyes, nervous twitch, absolute answers. Responses seemingly crafted to convincingly reaffirm the speaker's own beliefs, while hoping those listening are sufficiently sated to believe them too. It's been five and a bit days of hell for Heyneke Meyer, the Springbok coach, since their shock-loss to Japan. Quite simply, he's a man on (the) edge.
The Springbok landscape at the moment a minefield of swirling irony, limp clichés and hard-truths as Samoa looms, and there's only one way the coach can even remotely start to claw back some of the decimated public belief, although even a win will probably not be enough.
The public face of the build-up to the World Cup has been largely calamitous: injury woes with players skating on fitness thin-ice, a poor run of results, a week of ticker-taping and from the ridiculous to the sage in the 'debate' over transformation. On the surface it was the sort of preparation that would have made even the French wince.
A World Cup tournament is a balancing act and Meyer and his team would have been thankful to have concluded preparations, stepped out of the spotlight and finally boarded that flight for London's Heathrow now almost a fortnight ago. Or so they would have hoped.
But then his coaching world fell apart; crystalised by a gap in midfield you could have driven an articulated truck through as Japan surged to victory in Brighton, an Eddie Jones 'special', as his team made the Springboks look like, well Japan of previous tournaments. It brought sharply back into focus not only Meyer's record as national coach, but also place him firmly in the cross-hairs of the national sporting conscious. The country's patience finally looked to have run out.
Meyer's record in tests sees him having 27 from 42, having lost 13 and drawn twice. That's a win percentage of 66.66%, in line with the Springboks' overall record in test rugby. It's simply not good enough. And it all seemed to be starting so well.
In 2012 the Springboks won seven matches out of 12, drawing twice. A new team littered with a few old faces, so that return was largely acceptable to the public.
2013 showed great promise as come the end of year tour the Springboks seemed on a powerful trajectory to challenge the All Blacks at the top of the pile; they won 10 out of 12 games, losing to New Zealand in Auckland and Johannesburg. Their form in the Northern Hemisphere in particular impressed, with the World Cup just two years away and fan optimism soared.
But it's the Springboks last 18 tests in 2014 and this year in which they've lost 10, including 4 out until last week's humiliation by Japan, and a first ever loss to Argentina. The Statistics tell us that the Springboks are in free-fall. The Brains say that's partly due to the national team establishing a variety in their play, not perfected yet, and a quick reversal to the status quo could well draw immediate success. Which leaves the Heart where?
Of course, it's perhaps too simplistic to look at win ratios in determining both; a coach's history as coach, while also trying to see what sort of impact they might have in future.
The current Springbok set-up is arguably South Africa's most professional sporting outfit. In hand-selecting his support staff and in convincing his bosses at Saru about what his requirements are, Meyer has largely been given whatever he's felt he's needed. The results for now are not bearing that out.
The way in which he's reported on in the media and also the role he's played in transformation at the highest level are in-depth, important conclusions to be drawn at another time, post-World Cup.
Because the immediate matter to hand, facing Samoa in what he would have expected to be a tough but mandatory win for his team, sees his international coaching reputation on the line for what could be a final time. Saturday's match is quite clearly the defining moment of Meyer's career.
The players that he's so publicly backed, including the likes of Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana quite simply have to deliver for him. Those players all won in the World Cup in 2007 and such is Meyer's store in experience, a view shared by other coaches too, that he needs that faith repaid now.
So too his employers Saru, who while taking significant heat over the course of the last while, have given him their backing. His selection of five non-white players this weekend is short of the 30% target within the Springbok 23 and anything less than a good win leaves him, and them, straight-jacketed. It's a major gamble.
Meyer's a meticulous planner, the way in which the Bok gameplan failed to even make it into second gear not only against Japan but in other fixtures too sees the questions around his own coaching ability swirling. Simply put, he has to show people again that he know what he's doing.
That said, no matter the outcome of this weekend or indeed the tournament as a whole, the defeat to Japan probably could well be mortal blow to his future hopes as national coach. He not only has to convince the nation that he's the man to stay in the hot-seat for another four years , but more importantly, the general council of Saru who would rubberstamp that appointment, and he hasn't given them much to work with lately.
Jean Smyth is an EWN Sports Editor and you can follow him on Twitter: @Jean Smyth