Newsmaker – Div braces for the ultimate test

2011-08-27 15:47

Springbok coach Peter De Villiers sometimes delivers a sermon in the Huguenot Uniting Reformed Church in his hometown of Paarl.

They say he is a man who loves nothing more than using every available platform to motivate and inspire the youth in his community.

But Dr Noel Adams, a ward councillor in the historic town and fellow church member who grew up with De Villiers, reckons that while he’s a good motivator, the man remains a better rugby coach than a preacher.

“He’s a very, very loved member of our church. He’s an asset to our community. In him the youth see a good role model and an example that they can achieve greatness despite their skin colour,” says Adams.

When De Villiers was appointed Springbok coach in January 2008, a position which until then had been the preserve of white males, Paarl celebrated. But in rugby circles, eyebrows were raised and questions were asked about his suitability for the position.

“We have seven lean years ahead,” is how former Springbok captain Corné Krige apparently reacted to news of De Villiers’ appointment.

Oregan Hoskins, president of the SA Rugby Union, added fire to the storm, suggesting that De Villiers’ appointment was influenced by the politics of race and transformation.

Three years on, De Villiers faces the biggest challenge of his career when he leads the Springboks to the rugby World Cup, which kicks off in New Zealand next month.

Added to the pressure of being the first black Springbok coach is the fact that the Boks will be going into the tournament as defending champions.

“Somebody else would have given up, but not Peter,” says Adams.

“He’s got a very strong mentality and is a man who draws inspiration from his faith. He believes the sceptics should be proven wrong.”

Aidan Stowman, who played club rugby with De Villiers in Paarl during the days of segregation, says the pressure on De Villiers has been clear from the moment he was appointed.

Stowman chuckles when he recalls how then minister of sport Makhenkesi Stofile told De Villiers during a function in Paarl shortly after his appointment that he would be sent to Robben Island if he did not bring back the cup this year.

De Villiers, who was unavailable for interviews this week, announced his 30-man squad at the SuperSport studios in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

He told a media briefing that “the squad has a backbone of proven title-winning ability and experience as well as a strong component of new stars”.

De Villiers has been widely criticised for including only eight black players in the squad.

Says Stowman: “I regret to say this, but the mandate has not been met. He was given a clear mandate to make sure more players of colour are selected for the Springboks but, unfortunately, that mandate has not been met.”

True to his outspoken and straightforward nature, when asked why he had included only eight black players in the squad, the coach defended his decision in that familiar, quirky De Villiers style.

“I don’t know how many black players there are in the squad. We never sat down and worked that out or decided to pick someone based on the colour of their skin,” he said.

“We wanted South Africans to be proud of the team that is going overseas and we selected the best rugby players in this country at this moment in their specific positions. If they are black, they are not to blame for it, and if they are white, they are not to blame for it either.”

Over the years De Villiers has developed a reputation for shooting from the hip, something that led to Stofile publicly rebuking him and calling for him to shut up.

But back in Paarl, where De Villiers was born on 3 June 1957, he is known as a very religious man who loves his community.

Paarl, which is 60km northeast of Cape Town, is home to the Afrikaans Taal Monument and boasts a proud history of producing top black rugby players and clubs.

Chester Williams, who also hails from the town, became the first black Springbok to play in the rugby World Cup in 1995.

Adams believes that De Villiers’ rise to the top job was shaped by the town’s rich history in the sport.

He remembers that in his youth De Villiers, who played for Gardens Rugby Football Club and later represented Boland, “lived for rugby and was a great passer of the ball”.

Adams says one of De Villiers’ best attributes is his humility.

“He always tells us that God will set you up there and he will help you overcome the challenges. He’s very straightforward,” Adams says.

But Stowman adds that while De Villiers remains a good role model and the pride of Paarl, he is not without weaknesses.
Is he a good listener?

“He would much rather listen to himself,” he says.

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