Peter de Villiers has a giant mountain to climb if he hopes to succeed as Springbok coach.
De Villiers was confirmed as the man to lead the defending world champions for the next two years and comes into the job as arguably the most pressurised Springbok coach ever.
And he has his bosses to thank for compounding that pressure.
When South African Rugby Union president, Oregan Hoskins, proudly declared that De Villiers’ appointment was strongly influenced by the need to transform the Springboks, the new coach’s expression spoke of an insulted man.
De Villiers, a proud coloured man, quickly sought to banish the tag of a political appointment, saying: “It is a great privilege to be awarded this position, but I think the fact that I’m the first black coach must end now. I’m the next Springbok coach.”
When probed on the question of the racial composition of future Springbok teams, De Villiers held firm that selection will be entirely merit based. That may be his sincere intention, but it would be naive to believe that there wonâ€™t be any pressure from within Saru and from the suits in parliament for a black coach to pick more black players (ethnic black players in particular) than his predecessor, Jake White.
Failure to conform to expectations will see those within the presidents council who now back De Villiers, turn on him with consummate ease and no remorse. In a head to head battle with those in power and those who influence key decision makers, thereâ€™s little doubt that De Villiers will suffer the same fate as White. Then the selection circus starts again.
The fact that he inherits a champion team adds to the pressure De Villiers is under is. Heâ€™d be well advised to brace for constant references to Whiteâ€™s achievements and comparisons with his style of play, team selection and a range of other issues. Hereâ€™s hoping he stays true to his vision, beliefs and philosophies about how the game should be played, while always remaining open to input from respected figures in the game.
Initial impressions suggest he will.
De Villiers must wait to see if he will have the option of selection overseas based players. That decision will be taken at a presidents council meeting on 27 March. While it seems that Saru will back down on their decision to bar overseas based players from representing the Springboks, De Villiersâ€™ appointment as coach is evidence enough that the presidents have a penchant for the unexpected.
Not being able to select the likes of John Smit, Butch James and Percy Montgomery (amongst others and not considering those like Bryan Habana who may leave in future) will rob De Villiers of valuable experience. Experience, White proved, is a key ingredient in succeeding on the Test stage.
But even if sanity does prevail, De Villiers is not guaranteed that Smit, James and the like will be available for the next World Cup. The majority of the senior players have intimated that the Lions tour in 2009 will be their swansong. This will make planning towards the 2011 World Cup a difficult task and De Villiers will have to carefully consider whether selecting those players for two years is a better course of action than replacing them with a view to New Zealand in four years time.
That Heyneke Meyer was the popular choice and more deserving candidate is undoubted. But to lament his non-selection would be a purposeless exercise. De Villiers is the man entrusted with the task of taking a very special team into what will be a watershed period for Springbok rugby.
He faces the unenviable task of doing so under the watchful eye of a presidents council whose loyalty is fleeting and whose personal agendas influence crucial rugby decisions. Add to that the pressure that comes from being the unpopular choice to lead the world champions and you have a man who is about to be confronted by the ugly reality of his wonderful achievement.
De Villiers is a fighter. Heâ€™ll need every ounce of that bulldog spirit during his tenure.
By Ryan Vrede