- The ex-Stormers and Bulls kicking consultant talks about how his assignment with France came about and what he has made of the rise of South African compatriot Paul Willemse.
- The one-Test Springbok, who played against the All Blacks in 1996, reveals the regret around his international career and how he sees the Springboks shaping up ahead of 2023.
- The current French national team kicking coach also unpacks the intense pressure players at the top of the game deal with today and why he admires Rafael Nadal and Tony Parker.
Sport24 asked: How did your move as France’s kicking coach come about?
Vlok Cilliers: France head coach Fabien Galthie and I played together for Western Province and he contacted me in 2020 to be part of the coaching set-up as kicking coach. For me, it was a no-brainer to accept the offer and it’s an honour to coach together all these years later. At least once a week, Fabien and I share memories of our time playing together for Western Province. After the Scotland game, Fabien and I took a picture with AB Zondagh, who is coaching with Scotland, and sent it to his dad Alan who coached Fabien and me back in the ‘90s. That was quite special. While the Sharks had the most French signings in those days, we had Fabien and Laurent Cabannes with us in Cape Town.
Sport24 asked: Do you regret only playing one Test match for South Africa?
Vlok Cilliers: I have regrets in terms of not playing more Test matches and would love to have played more than once. It was sad that I couldn’t play more Tests but at least I had the opportunity to play for the Springboks. At the time, it was between me and Joel Stransky and Hennie le Roux was also there. There was a lot of talent there but I always said to myself that I could have played more Tests. Aside from competition, another reason my international career was so short-lived was because when I was with the Springboks you could only go onto the field as a substitute if there was a real injury. It’s not like today where you know as a reserve you will go on at some point. During my playing days, you had to sit and wait and pray that someone would get injured so you could get on. I wanted to be involved in more Tests but, at the end of the day, you must play the cards you’re dealt.
Sport24 asked: Are the Springboks tracking well ahead of the World Cup?
Vlok Cilliers: The Springboks will always be a powerful force in the game. They are ranked number one in the world and are defending world champions. We all know the way the Springboks play. They have a massive, powerful pack of forwards, a strong 9-10-15 axis that they rely on for their kicking game and they also have a good defensive system that they take pride in. They will always be a force, like the All Blacks, and have a good chance of doing well at World Cup 2023. The Springboks will always be up there with the best because they are tough and compete. In terms of their game plan, what I will say is that each team finds its own DNA in terms of how they want to play. It informs their attack, defence and kicking game. International rugby is like a game of chess because each side has a different strategy in terms of how they execute their plans. I think in a perfect world out there any team would want to find the ideal balance between when to run and when to kick. Every team strives to get to that perfect balance but that comes over time. When I come into a team as a kicking coach, what I do first is look at what direction the head coach wants to go in as a team and what he wants to achieve. (Before joining the French national set-up, Cilliers was involved with the Bulls and Western Province and he currently does consultancy work for a few clubs within Europe and Japan).
Sport24 asked: What’s your take on Paul Willemse’s rise through the ranks?
Vlok Cilliers: Paul is playing some of his best rugby at the moment for us. He scored an amazing try against Scotland and he’s at the heart of the engine in the tight five. He’s doing well and has become experienced and brings a massive point of difference. In terms of residency rules, you will see that if players can’t play for one country, such as the Springboks, and have the talent then they will go to another country and play there. If I was still a player today and the Springboks didn’t pick me, I would definitely look at Plan B to play for another country. I just liked playing rugby so that would definitely have been a possibility. In terms of Paul, he is so much part of the French set-up. He has been in France since 2015 and holds a French passport. But in a way he still hasn’t forgotten his roots. At times, he goes back to Namibia where he was born and still speaks Afrikaans. He finds that good balance. We sometimes have a coffee together and a lekker gesels which is nice for both of us.
Sport24 asked: How intense is the pressure on players in the game today?
Vlok Cilliers: I always say to players, “You can have all the talent and work hard during the week but the one thing you need to handle is the pressure.” They need to be mentally strong. Obviously the more rugby you play and the higher up you go, the more pressure there will be. Test rugby is the ultimate in terms of pressure. You must be able to handle it and to do so you need to be mentally strong. You will have failure because you’re not a robot and you will miss a kick here and slip a tackle there. I enjoy individual sports and love watching a guy like Rafael Nadal. He is just so mentally strong to come back from injuries and deficits. In the Australian Open final, he was two sets to love down and if he wasn’t mentally strong he would have lost in straight sets. Because he is mentally tough and had been in that situation before he knew how to handle the pressure, had the tools to turn it around and was aware of what to focus on. Nadal is unbelievable as is basketballer Tony Parker. I actually just watched the Netflix documentary on him titled Tony Parker: The final shot. I believe he was the first Frenchman to play in the US. He went on to win four NBA titles and was MVP in the 2007 final. He beat all the odds and was mentally strong enough to come back from criticism.
Sport24 asked: What have you made of Cheslin Kolbe’s meteoric rise?
Vlok Cilliers: I had the privilege of coaching Cheslin when he was still playing for the Stormers and remember everybody always saying, “Nah, he’s too small!” Some critics were openly questioning why he was playing Super Rugby. Based on his size many thought that opponents would just kill him but I was just looking at the progress he was making. There was a mental step up he had to make because he is smaller than the average player and he silenced the doubters. The type of tries he scored in the World Cup final and the Top 14 were unbelievable. He has speed, a good kicking game and can defend well. He’s similar to Antoine Dupont in that they can both do something special. In France, Cheslin plays at fullback or flyhalf but the world knows him as a Springbok winger. He has scored many tries and plays most of his rugby on the wing for South Africa. He is quick and also suited to fullback, so I don’t think there is one positon that would be more important than the other.
Sport24 asked: Would coaching the Springboks be a dream one day?
Vlok Cilliers: After I’m done with France, I see myself sitting on the beach under a palm tree! I’m only joking but I don’t want to look too far into the future. At the moment, I’m just focusing on what’s in front of me. It’s the Six Nations, the tour to Japan, the autumn series and then we are in a World Cup year and we want to make the best of that. After the World Cup, I will sit down and make a decision. I’m purely focused on what we have to do now. I’ve learned over the years with coaching that things can change in a second, so I focus on what’s in front of me and what I have to do now. Whatever happens after that will sort itself out. It’s happened in the past and will be the same again.