One Small Voice: SA’s eyes locked on the new guy

2008-05-30 00:00

For Peter de Villiers, the speculation will stop next weekend.

Since his appointment in February, the new Springbok rugby coach has been variously hailed as the right man to take the world champions forward and derided as a political stooge intent on packing the side with as many non-white players as possible. However, as his battle-scarred predecessors will confirm, all these subjective opinions will be washed away by the only measure that really counts.

From his first Test in charge, against Wales in Bloemfontein on Saturday, through all the inevitable ups and downs until the unavoidable day when he is dismissed (or “let go” or just plain fired), he will be judged purely and simply, unequivocally and unemotionally, by the results on the field. If his Bok team wins, he will become a national hero. If his Bok team loses, he will become a national disgrace.

There are a handful of places in the wide world of sport where the nature of the performance sometimes seems at least as important as the outcome — FC Barcelona were recently booed off the field after a 6-1 victory at the Camp Nou because their supporters felt the side had not played with sufficient flair — but such lofty ideals have never counted for much in the brutal, dark dungeon of SA rugby.

Springbok coaches must simply win and win and win again to survive in the job — and even winning will not always be enough because, as Jake White discovered last year, the day eventually comes when the blazered officials seem to grow so tired of the coach’s face that they will sack him even if he wins the World Cup.

So it goes. There’s no point complaining. The job is what it is.

In recent days, there have been vague murmurings that De Villiers might be given time to “transform” the side and that defeat may even be tolerated during transition. Is that a pig flying past the window? If the Boks lose, the administrators who today cast themselves as visionary, long-term planners will dodge the bullets and skilfully shift the pressure and criticism on to the quickly beleaguered coach.

Nobody’s skin will be saved by the colour of their skin. Like those who preceded him, and like those who follow him, this Springbok coach’s fate will be determined on the scoreboard.

As he launches his quest to sustain and nurture a winning team, De Villiers might have hoped for a less rigorous early season examination than that likely to be posed in Bloemfontein by an upbeat Grand-Slam winning Welsh side, and yet the coach does have an impressive squad of players at his disposal. Somehow, despite chronic mismanagement, this country continues to produce exceptional rugby talent.

His primary task is simple: mould the players into a family.

Anthropologists agree that human beings function most successfully as an integrated unit, helping and supporting each other through every challenge. The same principle applies to rugby.

The lessons of history are clear. In 1994 and 1995, Kitch Christie identified the spine of his team — Pienaar, Swart, Dalton, Wiese, Van der Westhuizen, Stransky, Joubert and so on — stood by them while they were booed in a warm-up match, and guided them to World Cup triumph at Ellis Park. From 2004 until 2007, Jake White showed the same strength and nurtured his key players – Smit, Matfield, Botha, Burger, Du Preez, Habana, Montgomery etcetera – through good days and bad days, and they repaid his faith with a World Cup victory at the Stade de France.

De Villiers’s immediate challenge is to start identifying the core of his Springbok team, to gather a tight group of players who he completely supports and trusts, and who, as a consequence, will completely support and trust him. He will have to protect them, and defend them when they lose form and everybody wants them dropped. He will earn their loyalty only by showing loyalty, and he will earn their cast-iron commitment only by showing cast-iron commitment to them.

If this new Springbok coach can be strong and develop his core group, the quality of talent at his disposal suggests he may very well lay the foundations of nothing less than the next world champions.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby.

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