Peter de Villiers: SA rugby's forgotten man and All Black mastermind

Peter de Villiers (Gallo)
Peter de Villiers (Gallo)

Cape Town - The Springboks are in Wellington this week preparing to become the first South African side since 2009 to win a Test match in New Zealand. 

No Bok coach since Peter de Villiers has won in New Zealand and, remarkably, he did it twice in as many years having won there in Dunedin in 2008 and then in Hamilton a year later. 

Both of those results were famous Springbok performances, with Ricky Januarie's breakaway try in 2008 one of the great South African rugby moments. 

It is a record that De Villiers is obviously proud of, but one that he desperately wants to see broken. 

"If you look at what we achieved between 2008 and 2011, and at those kinds of records that are still standing, then it makes me bitter to think that we haven’t progressed," the now-61-year-old told Sport24 in an exclusive interview from Harare.

"I can’t rejoice in something like that, because this is my country and if you want to see your country go forward then records are there to be broken."

Love him or hate him, you can't argue with De Villiers' stats against the world champions. 

No Springbok coach, since the dawn of professionalism, has beaten the All Blacks more times than De Villiers. He has wins from his 11 Tests against New Zealand, leaving him with a win percentage of 45.4%

Only Nick Mallett has a better win record against the ‘old foe’ with from 7 (57.1%).

The rest of that list reads like this: Allister Coetzee 0 from 4, Heyneke Meyer 1 from 8, Jake White 3 from 9, Rudolf Straeuli 0 from 5, Harry Viljoen 0 from 2, Carel du Plessis 0 from 2 and Andre Markgraaff 1 from 5.

Yet, despite his success against a side that the Springboks are now nowhere close to, De Villiers has been left out in the cold by SA Rugby following the end of the 2011 World Cup when he lost his job. 

Ever since then, the only work he has been given in South African rugby was as head coach of the University of the Western Cape in 2012. 

Given that De Villiers also guided the Boks to a famous 2-1 series win over the British and Irish Lions in 2009, that is nothing short of staggering.

"They didn’t want me close to the game," De Villiers recalls of the SA Rugby leadership at the time.

"I went to speak to Jurie (Roux, CEO) about a role where I could bring coaches up to the level where they could understand the game.

"I’m not saying that I was the only one who could do it, but I think a lot of young coaches don’t understand the mental skills in the game. There are a lot of skills that you need to have in a coach so that you can look for them in the players.

"The response was that he could not give me an answer and that it would take six months to speak to the board before he could get back to me."

De Villiers says he quickly realised that he was not wanted. 

To this day, he does not know why. 

"I really don’t know. I think maybe I’m too strong. I’m very principled and my faith and my spiritual life is very strong, and I think not everybody can live with that kind of stuff," he suggests.

"If you look at the state capture that we are currently busy with, I think there was a lot of state capture in our game during my day. This game does not belong to an individual and we should never allow somebody to take it hostage.

"Everybody has a chance to play this game and it was a unifying factor for all South Africans."

Despite his fall out with SA Rugby, De Villiers has now moved on and is currently the head coach of the Zimbabwe national team that recently failed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup.

It is a job that has given him immense satisfaction, and he speaks with fondness about the improvement he has seen in his players over the last year. 

"The sport here is not professional and these guys have never been exposed to high-performance coaching, but we are getting there, and I think it is happening quicker than we expected," De Villiers says.

"I thought that leaving the World Cup in 2011 so suddenly … I never put a lid on my coaching career, so I thought I would come do it now."

While he has been based in Harare, De Villiers still considers Paarl his home and he watches the developments of the national side closely. 

Never one to hold back on an opinion, De Villiers believes there is a lot wrong with the current state of South African rugby. 

He believes that South African coaches have forgotten the traditional strengths of their country's players.

"What made us so good? Hard-nut, forward rugby where we don’t have any respect for anybody and our forwards grind and grind," De Villiers says.

"If you mention Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith, Bismarck du Plessis, Schalk Burger … anybody who follows the game knows the fear that these people instil.

"If you mention those four names in one team, think how much fear there is in your opponent when you play. I don’t know why we moved away from getting those kinds of players.

"We are our own enemies because the All Blacks have perfected their lifestyle and how they play, and we went to copy them.

"How can you make a big guy, who can run through people, make so many passes and put so many kilometres on the clock? That is where I think we went a bit wrong."

De Villiers wants to coach in South Africa again, but he accepts that it might not happen.

"God throws the dice and you move wherever they fall … if it’s not meant for you, it’s not meant for you," he says.

"I’m fulfilled. I did what I could to change other people’s lives. The legacy is not what I did, but what other people say about what I did. That’s the only legacy that matters to me."

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