De Villiers: Believe in me

Even the bad times are good for new Bok coach Peter de Villiers.

There are no photos on the walls of Jake White’s former office at Saru headquarters in Newlands. Nails, hammered in at various angles, balls of dried Prestik and traces of double-sided tape are the only evidence that this room was once well decorated. On the modest pine desk is a laptop, a silver pen and pencil set and a telephone. The comfortable-looking black chair behind the desk is the only sign of luxury in a room that now belongs to Peter de Villiers.

The new Bok coach is stuck in traffic and I’m sitting alone at a round table next to the desk. It’s only after a couple of minutes that I notice the small picture frame. In it is a poem. After two weeks in the job, this is the only personal item De Villiers has brought with him from his Paarl home. The words reveal a lot about its owner.

You are your greatest asset,
There’s nothing you can’t do.
No one can keep you from dreaming,
Only you can make them come true.
What you achieve is determined
By the desire you possess.
There is no better feeling
Than the feeling of success.
Believe in who you are
And what you do,
Don’t leave things up to fate,
It’s strictly up to you.

When De Villiers walks in, I shake his hand and ask how he is. “Even the bad times are good,” he says with a smile, before pulling up a chair.

Interviewing the new Bok coach is like having a verbal joust. When I ask questions he’s comfortable with, he gives insightful, intelligent answers. But when I ask anything controversial, he either deflects the question with a question of his own or uses a range of metaphors.

De Villiers was born in Paarl in 1957 – nine years after the introduction of apartheid. When he was a child, his family was forced to leave their comfortable home because of the Group Areas Act.

He was a small child, but he refused to be bullied. “You know, there’s no fight like a fight with no rules,” he says. “I never allowed kids to push me around then, and I don’t let people push me around today. You don’t need a big body to have a lot of brains, you know.”

De Villiers began playing rugby at the age of nine, represented Boland Schools in primary and high school and made his provincial debut while studying to become a teacher. Later on, he was invited to Saru trials but missed out on selection for the non-racial national team.
He has no regrets about his playing career, even though he did not play Currie Cup and Test rugby.

“If white people didn’t want me to live among them, why would I want to play with them?” he says. “Rugby was only one part of my life, not my life. By not playing in white competitions, I was telling them I didn’t like the way they treated my people. However, those black players that chose to play with whites were not traitors. A traitor is someone who sells his country out. I decided to stay; my best friend – who played flyhalf in my team – chose to go, and we are still friends today. He later told me that the people [in white rugby] were dishonest with him and he wasn’t treated well.”

When asked about apartheid and the affect it had on him, De Villiers tells two stories. The first is about his family being forcibly removed from their home by the apartheid police. The second was later in life when he was a teacher and a respected member of his community. De Villiers was pushing his eldest daughter on the swings in a park when a white security guard threw them out. “He treated us like dogs,” he recalls. “But apartheid affected the lives of all South Africans – black and white. If you were a white person, you were not allowed to mix with black people. You can’t be a holistic person if you don’t interact with people from all walks of life.”

De Villiers, as the poem on his desk confirms, believes in himself. He also loves himself a lot.

“Loving myself enables me to love others and congratulate them when they achieve something,” he says. “I know what I want from life, and I always back my own abilities. I’m not afraid to use the expertise of others, but most of the time I rely on myself.”

De Villiers says his top priority in life is God, “because God is everywhere”, but admits his other priorities are determined by circumstance. “My job could be my top priority today, and my family tomorrow. When I wake up in the morning, I decide what my priorities will be for the day.”

While he gets on with most people, he often clashes with those who are economical with the truth. “I don’t like dishonest people. I tend to interfere in their affairs,” he explains.

De Villiers was always going to coach after he stopped playing rugby. “I knew I had something to offer other players,” he says. De Villiers enjoyed instant success with the SA Correctional Services and SA Colleges sides, before being approached by Tygerberg. After two years with the Cape Town club, he was appointed coach of the Western Province Disas, the union’s senior B team. However, although he took the Disas to three consecutive finals, he was never considered to coach Western Province’s Currie Cup team (he was only made an assistant coach in 1998).

I ask De Villiers if this lack of opportunity, early in his coaching career, frustrated him. Does he believe WP used him just to add colour to their coaching staff? Was there ever a plan to groom him to become the Currie Cup head coach?

“There’s nothing I can do if people are dishonest,” he says. “I don’t get cross if people don’t believe in me, because that’s their view. I got a job at WP and I was successful in that job. That’s all that mattered to me.

“As for only being an assistant coach, you don’t have to be a pilot to fly from Cape Town to Durban; you can be the co-pilot too. You still get to your destination safely.”

However, De Villiers was given a chance to coach internationally at age-group level – his SA U19 team finished third at the 1999 World Championship. Although he was also an assistant with the Bulls in the 2001 Super 12, no provincial union approached him to coach their senior side. It was only in 2002 that the Falcons finally gave him a break.

When he left the Brakpan-based union in 2004, there were allegations of racism, a claim the coach denies.

“Those three years at the Falcons made me the coach I am today,” he says. “It was a tough three years, though, because I lost 33 players and had a budget of R1.2 million compared with the R10 million at the disposal of the previous coach. But I’m grateful for the opportunity they gave me.”

When SA U21 coach Jake White got the Bok job in 2004, De Villiers was given another opportunity on the world stage. His Baby Boks finished third at the World Championship that year, won it in 2005 and finished second in 2006.

Yet in 2007, De Villiers was still waiting for another opportunity to coach at Currie Cup or Super 14 level. Instead, he worked as a consultant to Maties first team in Stellenbosch, and the club won the WP Super A League and the National Club Championships. Later in the year, he took the Emerging Springboks to Romania and won the IRB Nations Cup. When he returned home, he was amazed by the low-key reception the team received. Even more hurtful was the fact that no-one from Saru contacted him to offer their congratulations.

De Villiers was close to Newlands rugby stadium when he received the call from SA Rugby CEO Johan Prinsloo. “Hi Peter, Johan here. I need you to come to the fourth floor of the Sports Science Institute for a press conference. You’ve got the job.”

“I cannot describe the way I felt at that moment,” recalls De Villiers. “I had prepared myself for both eventualities, but I was still blown away by the enormity of it all.”

At just after 1.30pm, De Villiers walked into his first Springbok press conference wearing the Bulls blazer he’d earned in 2001. After facing the media – and hearing Saru president Oregan Hoskins admit that transformation had played a part in his selection – De Villiers drove home to find his house covered in Bok flags and messages from well-wishers scribbled on the windows in white wash-off paint.

At that moment De Villiers realised just how close his community really was.

The new Bok coach had switched off his cellphone before entering the Bok press conference and turned it on only later that night when things had calmed down. On his voicemail was a message from Jake White, wishing him all the best.

I ask De Villiers if he spoke to any of the other contenders in the days that followed. “Chester [Williams] was the only one who phoned me and we had a good chat. If I had missed out on the Bok job, I definitely would have called whoever got it and said well done.”

If De Villiers had spoken to Heyneke Meyer – who he edged 10-9 in the President’s Council vote – what would he have said? “I’d have told him to get on with his life,” he replies.

De Villiers won’t divulge the details of his presentation to the coaching committee, which recommended his name to the President’s Council. “I’ve been told it’s confidential,” he says. “But I can tell you I made them a couple of promises. I promised I would do everything in my power to ensure the Boks stay No 1 in the world, and I promised to take the game to the people.”

He aims to keep his promises by playing an expansive style of rugby – the total opposite of what we came to expect from Jake White’s Boks.

“Structure in rugby came from Australia, a country which doesn’t have a lot of rugby talent,” he explains. “I believe the more talent you have, the less structure there should be. We have a massive amount of talent in South Africa and I want to give them the freedom to express themselves. I want my players to be the best they can be, on and off the field.”

I ask De Villiers whether he thinks the Boks can realistically expect to beat the All Blacks at their own game. Under White, the Boks won three Tests against the arch-enemy by dominating up front and playing to a set structure – not by throwing the ball around.

“You’ll get your answer in July [during the Tri-Nations],” De Villiers replies. “I believe we can beat the All Blacks with an expansive approach. We just need to have a positive mindset. If we can be successful with a negative mindset – as has often been the case in the past – imagine what we could achieve with a positive one.”

Another White trait was to favour tall, big backs (Jean de Villiers, Frans Steyn, Butch James etc) over pocket rockets such as Brent Russell. Can the smaller provincial player in South Africa now dream of Bok selection under De Villiers?

“Let me put it this way,” he says. “A small talented guy will always be better than a big untalented guy, and a big talented guy is better than a small talented guy. I will select the best player for the job.”

Perhaps White’s greatest achievement was to create a winning culture with the Boks. So it’s good to know that De Villiers is a very bad loser. He says he can’t even handle losing a game of marbles and doesn’t know how he’ll react if his Boks lose a Test in front of a global audience.

“The Boks play 12 Tests this year, and I want to win all 12. One loss in a season is one too many. Any defeat hurts me,” he says.

There are those who say De Villiers is in a no-win situation. If he wins every game in 2008, he’ll have done it with the team Jake built. If the Boks start to lose, he’ll be the coach who stuffed up the world champions. De Villiers, however, refuses to accept that.

“No, no, no, no,” he says loudly. “If we win all our games, it shows we’ve built on the winning culture created by Jake. If we lose, perhaps it’s because there have been a few changes and we are busy rebuilding. So I think I’m in a win-win situation.”

I’ve saved the most hard-hitting questions of the interview for last, and as they start coming De Villiers gets more agitated and his answers more evasive.

“When the Boks struggled under Jake White in 2006, his kids copped abuse at school. Have you warned your daughters what could happen if you go through a bad patch?”

“No, why would I do that? We’re only going to have good times this year.”

“When will you pick your Bok captain?”

“After we’ve chosen the first match 22 on merit. I can tell you one thing, though: one of those 22 players will be the captain.”

“Do you rate Luke Watson?”

“I don’t want to discuss Luke Watson because it will put pressure on him. Why didn’t you ask me about Gcobani Bobo? Don’t you want to know about Bobo?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Then leave Watson out of this interview because he’s the same as any player to me.”

“Do you have a relationship with Cheeky Watson?”

“Definitely. I am talking to you now, so I have a relationship with you too.”

“Do you have a close relationship with Cheeky Watson?”

“I only have a close relationship with my wife. [Pause] Look, I listen to most people in life and then I make a choice who makes sense to me. Cheeky Watson makes a lot of sense to me when I talk to him. He’s a very intelligent man, and he’s a very honest man.”

“According to a newspaper article last year, you said you’d select 10 blacks in the Bok starting XV.”

“I never said that. What I told the journalist is that I don’t see colour, I only see rugby players, and I will choose the best possible Bok team.”

“If the best Bok team, in your view, is all-white, will you pick it?”

“You will never, ever in your life again see an all-white team. And you will never see an all-black team either. Each race group has different skills that complement each other.”

“According to some scientific reports, the white Afrikaner is more suited to rugby than non-white players for genetic reasons. Could that explain why 13 out of the 15 Boks in the World Cup final were white?”

“That’s absolute rubbish. Over the weekend I watched a white player [Stormers centre Corne Uys] carried off the field after being tackled by a coloured player [Boland wing Alshaun Bock].”

“How will you ensure Super 14 coaches select more black players this year?”

“I believe they will do that without me interfering.”

“Wouldn’t official quotas make more sense than this gentlemen’s agreement?”

“Quotas do more harm than good. Look what quotas have done to the crayfish industry in this country. When there are official quotas, those non-white players in the team are regarded as quota players.”

When our time is up, De Villiers breaks into a smile and claps his hands together. His PR manager, Neil de Beer, walks in and gives his client a new 2008 diary, with gold-edged pages. “Wow, look at this!” De Villiers enthuses. “It’s even got my name on it!”

As I prepare to leave, they start discussing a gala banquet to be held in De Villiers’s honour in Paarl. “I spoke to [minster of sport] Makhenkesi Stofile this morning and he confirmed he’ll be there,” says De Beer. “Oh, and Ceres is sponsoring the juice.”

As I walk down the passage, I can hear De Villiers laughing.

By Simon Borchardt

This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine. The new issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 12 March.