Peter de Villiers on the Bok game plan, why Brian O’Driscoll should have been the Lions’ captain, and adjusting to the global ELVs.
What’s your overall impression of the Lions touring squad?
I know Ian McGeechan as a brilliant coach, having also been an excellent player in his day. McGeechan’s biggest attribute is that he’s a very organised person so he won’t leave any stone unturned and will do his homework thoroughly. He’s willing to take on whatever is in front of him and he’s a brilliant tactician. You can see the influence the other coaches around him have had and they have put together a great squad. We expected most of the players to be there but I was surprised that Mike Blair, Steve Borthwick and Ryan Jones were left out [Blair and Jones later joined the squad as injury replacements].
Do you think Ian McGeechan made the right choice in selecting Paul O’Connell as captain ahead of Brian O’Driscoll?
Well, did Peter de Villiers make the right decision in naming John Smit as his Springbok captain? That’s something only I will know and the same applies to McGeechan, and we respect his decision. O’Connell’s name had been mentioned quite a bit prior to the announcement so people knew he was going to be captain.
Who would you have picked to captain the Lions?
I would have made O’Driscoll captain, because he was the most successful captain in this year’s Six Nations.
What does his selection say about the style of rugby the Lions intend to play?
To me it looks like they will adopt a direct approach, which is the way world rugby is going at the moment. You have to be direct in certain cases, so we will just have to wait and see if they can adapt to conditions in South Africa.
You have always advocated that the past counts for nothing, but will McGeechan’s previous successes with the Lions against the Boks play a role this time round?
Ja, definitely. McGeechan is a respected man and wherever he goes people listen to what he has to say. The players will listen to him and will try to do exactly what he asks of them. He certainly does know a thing or two about winning in South Africa.
The Boks lost the 1997 series to the Lions because of poor goal kicking. Will you make sure you select a recognised goal kicker?
Goal kicking is part of the game, so is tackling, scrumming and lineouts. If you look at things in isolation as a coach, you will be lost. It’s the right of the individual out there who will never have the privilege of selecting the Bok side to have his own views on how things should be done, but for us as coaches we have to look at everything holistically. Even the greatest goal kickers in the world have missed a couple of important kicks.
Have you learnt any lessons from that 1997 series loss?
You can take lessons out of everything. We definitely learnt a few lessons from that tour and we can’t guarantee that we won’t repeat those mistakes, but there will certainly be an emphasis on cutting them out.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced while preparing to take on the Lions?
The biggest challenge is that the bulk of the Bok squad has been playing in the Super 14 and key players have got injured. The fact that we won’t have sufficient preparation time together as a team is also a challenge. Some players will have been involved in the Super 14 semi-finals and that in itself will be a challenge – to switch their focus back to what lies ahead of them after having already achieved so much.
Are you satisfied that your players have had enough rest in preparation for the Lions series?
No, they haven’t have enough time off. You know it, I know it and we all know that one time or another they are going to break down. But we must be prepared for that. It’s like being in an accident. If somebody dies in a car accident you just replace them and that’s what we will have to do.
Would you consider resting certain players after the Lions tour?
We must just prepare smarter. There are a few things I need to look at and there are some new things that I need to instil in the team, but it will be tough because it’s the same players who I need to do that with. But if we are smart we can overcome that.
Will the Boks be more structured against the Lions than they were at times during the Tri-Nations last year?
The Boks will always play the game they have played for many years. We will have a very tough pack of forwards. The players will play the situation, but there will be some structure because without it you are like a headless chicken. I’m looking for a lot of intellectual players, players who can make the right decisions instinctively.
Carel du Plessis’s failure against the Lions in 1997 ultimately cost him his job. Are you feeling the pressure ahead of this series?
This game isn’t Peter de Villiers’s game. I’m so blessed and honoured to be part of the Springboks and I’m going to make a difference wherever I can. But there’s no coach in the world who can make players, it’s the players who make the coach. I’ll be there to give the players direction, but if we lose we lose. We will never prepare to lose, but we don’t have control over winning and losing. Rugby will never be my life, it is simply a part of my life and everything that’s part of my life I do to the best of my ability.
John Smit hasn’t played much at tighthead this year. Does that concern you?
I expected to be greeted by sunshine when I woke up this morning and I got my clothes ready, but it was overcast. I don’t worry about how it’s going to be, what’s important is how I react to what happens. I just put those clothes back and changed. That’s life. John is a student of this game and he will take on any challenge to make a difference for his country.
Injury ruled Butch James out of the Lions tour. Was he a candidate for selection?
Every South African rugby player is a candidate to play for the Springboks if they are good enough. I don’t have any control over injuries. Today somebody will get injured, tomorrow somebody else and after that someone else. But that is why God gave us so many people around us so that we can just adapt to the circumstances.
South African players have played under the hybrid ELVs in the Super 14. Will it be hard to adjust to the global ELVs in the Lions series?
It will be tough, but then again when in Rome do as the Romans do. We will just have to adjust. We simply want to make this a great spectacle for the people who support us and for the players themselves.
Will playing under the global ELVs change your approach to the game?
There are only really three or four changes that you have to adjust to. You won’t go break down your whole house if you want to make the one room bigger, you just knock out one wall, and that’s how we will approach it.
Do you think the Boks will gain any advantage by playing the last two Tests at altitude?
Well, the altitude will affect us and the Lions. A lot of players live in Cape Town and in Durban and the Lions come from Britain and Ireland so circumstances will be the same. You can’t look at things to help you, you rather use the circumstances to get to where you want to be.
Will the fact that the Boks only have one warm-up game against a Namibia XV count against you?
The Lions are in a privileged position. We are giving them six games to prepare for the Test series and to turn the team into a unit, so they will have the advantage in that regard.
Most people expect the Bok team to almost pick itself. How much does Super 14 form play in your selection process?
Super 14 form is a great yardstick for everybody. But if a guy is good enough to play for his country he is good enough to play for his country, there’s no experiment. If a player has shown form in the Super 14, which in my view is the toughest tournament in the rugby world, why can’t he do it on the international stage? If he’s successful there he can be successful anywhere.
Did you consult with the South African Super 14 coaches regarding your selection for this tour?
Of course. If you think this is only your game, you are dead. You are only part of it and they are also part of it, so we work together as a unit. I consult all the Super 14 coaches because one of them could be the next Springbok coach.
What were you up to while the players were involved in the Super 14?
The same things McGeechan was doing – watching rugby – except we have a bigger country and the Super 14 is played over great distances so it was a bit more hectic. We also made a few trips to watch some Six Nations games and we did some planning for our run-up to the World Cup.
What did you make of the standard of rugby that was played in this year’s Super 14?
I think the rugby that has been played, particularly by the South African sides, has been brilliant. South African rugby is on the up and South African sport as a whole is on the up.
By Andrew Worling
This interview first appeared in SA Rugby magazine