The making of a mature strategist

2011-09-10 00:00

WHAT an inspirational send-off Gauteng-based fans gave the Springboks in Sandton last week. It was simply awesome.

While watching the spectacle on television, I could sense the excitement in the air and felt the electricity every time the crowd went wild, especially after the Minister of Sport told the Springboks to “bliksem” their opponents.

It felt as if I was there, in Sandton Square, sharing in the exhilaration of the moment. The time had come. It was here. I could feel it. Six weeks of Rugby World Cup was at hand to crown the next world champions.

While listening to speaker after speaker wishing the Boks well for the tournament, I couldn’t help but feel for the coach when it came to his turn.

He handled the situation well, keeping it simple and to the point.

I can just imagine the pressure he must be under at this time, the defining point of his term as Springbok coach, it certainly must be.

The tournament has the potential to turn Peter de Villiers into a national hero if the Boks successfully defend their title — or a villain if they bomb out early in the tournament.

While there might be many that would like to see the outspoken, eccentric coach brought down hard into the muddy earth of New Zealand, most of us will be rooting for him and his band of men to bring the cup home.

Rumour has it that De Villiers will be relieved of his job as coach even if he wins the Rugby World Cup. In fact, De Villiers himself has said as much. Why should this be the case?

Various pundits have pointed to his often strange and sometimes hilarious comments to the press, while others have banged on about his so-called technical shortcomings and indecision around the right “pattern of play” for the Springboks.

Some have also pointed to attempts by De Villiers to get rid of his assistant coaches halfway through their contract when he was under pressure from his bosses to change the fortunes of the Springboks after a dismal 2010 season.

In Australia they called the Springbok coach a clown, something that has never happened to any Springbok coach before.

Notwithstanding all these aspects of De Villiers’s tenure as the Springboks coach, I still believe that, despite the almost impossible task he took on with his appointment, he has not received the recognition he deserves for what he has managed to achieve so far, namely mentoring the team that is regarded as one of the favourites to win the 2011 RWC.

In fact, very few traditional rugby followers believed that South Africa’s first non-white Springbok coach would make a success of the job.

While others were ridiculing him, De Villiers was slowly but surely turning the Boks’ coaching job into his own, not giving way from those who wanted him to toe the line.

On more than one occasion he had to come out strongly saying that he was in charge and no one else. This was true to his character as a coach who takes charge and leads with decisiveness.

When he took over the reins many expected him to release Jake White’s players and start with a brand-new squad and captain.

He surprised all and sundry when he travelled to France to convince John Smit and Victor Matfield to come back to South Africa and play for him.

This act alone demonstrated the maturity of De Villiers as a person, but more importantly as a strategist who has assessed his circumstances and acted in the best interest of the Springboks and South Africa, rather than his own.

Like any good leader he has demonstrated time and again how he thinks on his feet, reviewing previous attitudes he held about various aspects of the game, such as tactics and selections, and then amending them to address new challenges that arose along the way.

His approach, which has been to draw on the experience of senior players like Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger, is in my view not a sign of weakness, but an indication of mature insight into how to harness total buy-in from your troops when you’re about to go to battle.

Ironically, his critics have tended to use these self-same issues as examples of his inability to coach the technical aspects of the game or to control the players he coaches. In my view that’s utter nonsense.

In his four years at the helm of Springbok rugby De Villiers has won the Tri-Nations and has beaten the British and Irish Lions in an exhilarating three-Test series.

He has proved his abilities at the highest level of the game and against the toughest opposition the world of rugby has to offer.

He has held his squad together over this period and selected players who are as close as can be to the best squad available at this time, a tremendous achievement.

De Villiers and his players deserve our unreserved support at the Rugby World Cup. Let’s back them whatever happens!

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