‘Pete Snor’ tells it like it was

2012-06-30 00:00

THE lingering impression left by Peter de Villiers’s autobiography was how close he came to defying massive odds — and his many critics — by ending four turbulent years as Springbok coach on a romantic high in New Zealand last year.

De Villiers was a political appointment to many South Africans and a clown to others — particularly in the Australian and New Zealand media. Yet, to coin one of De Villiers’s own memorable comments, he almost pulled a rat out of the hat in New Zealand last year. Certainly his Rugby World Cup plan appeared to be coming together nicely until the Springboks bumped into an incompetent referee and the dream defence of their title ended in an awful nightmare.

There will be those who will see De Villiers’s tale as little more than the rantings of a disillusioned, frustrated and ultimately paranoid man. But there is no doubt that he had reason to view the nasties in South African rugby, and the piggy-backing politicians, with deep suspicion.

And it had all started before he had taken his first step. His appointment as Bok coach on January 9, 2008, should have been a proud day and one of celebration. But Regan Hoskins, president of the SA Rugby Union, told the world that De Villiers had been chosen not “only for rugby reasons” and that the issue of transformation had played a major role in his selection. Hoskins went on to say that the world champion Springboks now had their first “black coach”.

De Villiers, on the day of his greatest joy, had been pigeonholed and he spent the next four years trying to shake that affirmative-action tag and prove himself as a rugby coach.

From day one, he says, he was isolated with SA Rugby Union (Saru) officials, the media and the public waiting for him to fail. And so he went in search of back-up, assembling a support group, a committee to help and advise him.

He chose badly. Cheeky Watson was leader of his committee and he brought ANC politicians Butana Komphela, Cedric Frolich and Mike Stofile along for the ride. Watson, says De Villiers, was chasing his own political and personal agendas, fighting for the removal of the Springbok emblem and the inclusion of his son Luke in the Test team.

De Villiers almost immediately fell out with his own support group when he told them that he was determined to involve John Smit and Victor Matfield in his future plans. Later he was told they would rather have a white coach they could control than a black one who would not listen.

De Villiers tells how Watson even followed him to New Zealand during a Tri-Nations tour and attempted to pressure him into including Luke in his starting line-up. He says he was reliably informed that Cheeky Watson and Frolick were behind the widely reported story of a sex tape which showed De Villiers in a compromising position with a woman. No tape has ever emerged.

Against this backdrop, and with enemies behind every bush, De Villiers turned to within the squad — with Smit and Matfield as his henchmen — for the loyal support he could not find elsewhere.

Smit, in his foreword, says that while the Boks in 2011 ultimately failed, he remains convinced that with De Villiers as coach, and the plan they had hatched, retaining the RWC title had been a real possiblity. Smit adds that De Villiers was the most popular of Springbok coaches with those who really counted … the players.

The media pressure on De Villiers during his tenure was unrelenting as he stumbled from one crisis to the next. Significantly, even Gavin Rich, the former Durban rugby writer now based in Cape Town, was reluctant to co-author his book.

“I’m your harshest critic,” said Rich, but De Villiers told him he could write the book just the way he saw it.

And Gavin has, providing the insider’s view of South African rugby in turmoil and triumph.

De Villiers admits he made mistakes. He says he betrayed his principles when he tried to ditch his assistant coaches, Dick Muir and Gary Gold, late in 2010 after he was told by Hoskins that either he or they had to go. He regrets his handling of Smit, first trying to transform him from a hooker into a tighthead prop (by putting on weight) and then returning him to hooker (by losing weight).

The major talking point at the RWC in 2011 was whether the world-class Bismarck du Plessis or captain John Smit should be at hooker. De Villiers concedes that the blossoming Du Plessis was a better player than the veteran Smit, but he says that his captain was better for the team.

Finally, as De Villiers himself might have said, he had his Waterloo in Wellington last year, as the peaking Boks dominated the RWC quarter-final, but lost 11-9 to the Wallabies and Bryce Lawrence.

De Villiers, preparing for his final press conference moments after the Boks’ traumatic exit, initially wanted to highlight the possibility of match-fixing. Lawrence had spent the game apologising to Smit and Matfied for the many Australian infringements he was missing. Finally, he decided to go against character and play the diplomatic role in front of the world media.

It later emerged, says De Villiers, that the subdued New Zealand referee had made 47 omissions or mistakes in the game instead of his usual respectable six.

Lawrence, folks, suffered from the condition decidophobia, the overwhelming, irrational fear of making decisions. Certainly De Villiers, bryced in Wellington, would have Lawrence at the top of his list of decidophobia sufferers.

De Villiers’s story will, of course, go out to a sceptical audience, one never quite sure whether Hoskins’s political appointment could carry the can at international level. But if nothing else, De Villiers does provide a firsthand account of the skulduggery and manipulations that are a part of South African rugby.

De Villiers was known to the players as Pete Snor (moustache) or Pete Helium (because his high-pitched voice suggested he had been puffing on gas). He was always known for his colourful language, his quaint use of metaphors and his willingness to speak his mind. His media briefings were not to be missed and it is perhaps unfortunate that Rich did not pop in a short chapter on De Villiers’s “snorisms” which confused, bemused and amused the international media, but were part of his character.

On racism, following criticism of scrumhalf Ricky Januarie, he said: “If you take your car to a garage where the owner is a black man, and he messes up, then you’ll never go back to that garage again. If the owner’s a white man you say, ‘ah, he made a mistake’, and you go back.”

On a tight Test defeat: “There is little difference between winning and losing except you feel better after winning.”

On calls to change his coaching methods: “I will not change my style. If I change my style I will change Peter de Villiers and then I would have to tell God that he made a mistake when he made me.”

And, finally, on this book of his life: “I wouldn’t be anyone’s puppet. I’m ugly, I’m black, but I’m not stupid. This is the real book, this tells everyone about the real Peter de Villiers, not the rubbish people wanted me to be.”

And that is true. Peter de Villiers, Springbok coach from 2008 to 2011, was different.

Politically Incorrect, Peter de Villiers with Gavin Rich (Zebra Press, Cape Town). R198.90

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