Praising the Springboks’ very different coach

2009-09-19 00:00

AND now let’s hear it for coach Peter de Villiers.

The idiosyncratic national coach, who spent the early days of the international season under siege, has defied his many critics to take the Springboks to the very top of the rugby heap with victory over the British Lions followed by three successive wins over the All Blacks to secure the Tri-Nations title and the number one spot in the world’s ranking list. His CV would be the envy of any rugby coach.

Forgotten are the black moments during the British Lions tour, his massed substitutions of the first Test, his ill-timed and embarrassing public defence of Schalk Burger after the second and the decision to field a diluted team in the third, armband international at Ellis Park.

In his own words, “I only make the same mistake once”, and his relations with the media, and his selections, have improved dramatically as the season has run its course.

His media briefings often appear confused and confusing, but they are not to be missed. Gone are the humdrum Springbok press conferences punctuated by clichés and sound bites. With De Villiers, the most innocuous question can launch a thousand stories.

De Villiers was asked last week why the Boks were preparing for the All Black at Surfers’ Paradise on the Australian Gold Coast rather than travelling directly to Hamilton in New Zealand. The real reasons were that the Boks wanted to train in the warmer Australian climes rather in the cold and damp of North Island and they wanted to avoid the New Zealand media hype, but De Villiers, tongue in cheek, ruffled Kiwi feathers, and even brought a response from New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, by saying “there is nothing to do in Hamilton”.

Earlier, asked by the international press about his approach to coaching the Boks, he replied in a typical fashion:

“I won’t 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.”

The strength of De Villiers, the Boks’ first black coach, is that he has built on the winning World Cup platform and not broken it down. He was fast-tracked into the high profile position having never coached Currie Cup or Super 14 teams, but has adapted quickly and he has been astute in exploiting and tapping into the experience in the squad.

He immediately named John Smit as his captain to ensure continuity and he worked with the players, consulting and empowering them rather than dictating to them.

In contrast, many recent Bok coaches have attempted to reinvent the wheel, chasing visions and dreams but leaving behind them frustrated and confused players and captains. Nick Mallett broke up the most successful Springbok team in history by dropping their captain Gary Teichmann on the eve of the 1999 World Cup; a year later new coach Harry Viljoen, wanting to make his point at any cost, banned kicking and the Boks had to hang on desperately to beat Argentine 37-33. De Villiers has stayed with what is familiar and effective.

While De Villiers can be bewildering to the rugby public, his players appreciate his strengths.

Smit says that while De Villiers inherited a successful World Cup-winning squad, he has allowed the team and the players to mature.

“He encourages the players to be themselves,” says Smit who added that the high morale in the Bok camp was because of De Villiers.

Springbok centre Jean de Villiers agrees.

“Peter has been the right guy at the right time and he definitely has to take the credit,” said the centre. “I think we’ve got it spot on at this stage and it’s working well for us as a team.”

The Springbok coach, to his credit, has been quick to deflect praise. After the Springboks had beaten the All Blacks in Durban, a reporter from Cape Town and head of the Peter de Villiers Fan Club, turned a question into a praise song of the coach. De Villiers, in turn, quickly pointed out that victory was not because of him but the product of close consultation with the senior players.

De Villiers is, of course, fortunate to have at his finger-tips the most experienced team in international rugby with 639 caps spread through last Saturday’s starting line-up and a core of sensible leaders in Smit, Victor Matfield, Juan Smith, Fourie du Preez and Jean de Villiers.

The key, of course, is to keep the balance and maintain the trust. If the players abuse their position — and there was a hint of it in the armband protest at Ellis Park — if they start looking for easy options, slacking on the training ground, influencing selections or taking victories for granted, then this close, family relationship will end in a messy divorce.

Peter de Villiers says the Boks can still improve and he is right. They have yet to produce an 80-minute performance, there will be greater cohesion to the scrum as the retreaded Smit and the developing young Beast Mtawarira settle, a fullback (for Frans Steyn) and inside centre (for Jean de Villiers) have now to be found and whoever is ordering the late substitutions should have his walkie-talkie confiscated.

Peter de Villiers has even produced the put-down of the Tri-Nations. Shortly after the All Black weekend defeat, a local hack snidely asked De Villiers if he thought the celebrating Boks could now find something to do in Hamilton on Saturday night.

“Oh, yes, we found something to do in Hamilton,” responded De Villiers, “we have won the Tri-Nations here.”

Springbok rugby, for the moment, is smiling. Or, in the inimitable words of Peter de Villiers, “He who laughs last, laughs the latest.”

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