Winning with robots

Peter de Villiers has matured as Springbok coach, writes Keo in his weekly Business Day column.

Springbok rugby is in a good place and so is Bok coach Peter de Villiers, whose team has been allowed to play without the interference of politicians and without their coach being flown back to South Africa to explain why he selected two non-white wingers and a black Zimbabwean prop in picking a merit side to win the Tri Nations.

It is how it should be when searching for normality in our sport and when looking to the future and not being stifled by the pain of the past.

De Villiers, his media mauling over the last 18 months mostly self-inflicted, has been at his most impressive in the last two months. He has answered rugby questions with rugby answers, steered clear of mixing his metaphors and left his biblical rhetoric for his Sunday church sessions.

De Villiers, when he succeeded World Cup-winning coach Jake White, promised greater transformation than the two non-white wingers who featured in South Africa’s winning World Cup final in 2007. De Villiers said it was a disgrace that Bryan Habana, the world’s best finisher, did not touch the ball in the World Cup final from structured play and said his aim was to turn White’s robotic players into individuals who thought for themselves and played what was in front of them. De Villiers said he did not coach from a clipboard and that it all came from within.

Ironically, it was mostly the same two non-white wingers (Habana and JP Pietersen) who made up De Villiers’s non-white selections in the successful Tri Nations and Habana, in the 32-29 win against the All Blacks in Hamilton, hardly touched the ball as the structured and robotic Boks used their robotic strengths to defeat an All Blacks team that played from the heart but with no appreciation of what it means to play with a bit of common sense.

De Villiers said he wanted to be judged as a rugby coach and not the first non-white bloke to coach the Springboks. When he lost, he struggled and was criticised because of a questionable game plan and poor selections he blamed the media and those doing the criticism as the work of racists. He said it was because he was not white. That is the minefield De Villiers created for himself when he took over from White.

It is important to remember how De Villiers found himself in this position at the end of the 2008 Tri Nations when a Bok team capable of winning the competition ended last with two wins from six. It is important because it shows how De Villiers has matured as a national coach in the last few months.

The Bok coach is saying less idiotic things, allowing his squad to play to their strengths and publicly stating that you don’t fix things if they aren’t broken. He also seems to have lost the inferiority complex of succeeding a coach who won a World Cup.

To be fair to De Villiers he was initially always on a hiding to nothing. If he won with the core of White’s World Cup squad, playing a similar pattern, then where was the credit? If he changed, for the sake of change as happened in 2008 and lost, there would only be condemnation.

Fortunately, De Villiers in the 2009 Tri-Nations applied logic to the squad he has at his disposal. He has allowed them to further mature, playing the kind of game that best suits them and currently is dominating the world order.

I find the comparison of the 2009 Bok squad to the 2007 World Cup winners absurd as 90% of the starting XV are the same players and naturally these same players would be better players since beating England in Paris in 2007. As individuals (and a collective unit) they are 20-odd Tests wiser and at their peak.

De Villiers deserves all the credit for not tweaking a winning formula and accepting that the winning way of 2009 may not be what he had in mind when given the job as Bok coach. He is winning with robots, unlike All Blacks coach Graham Henry who is losing with a bunch of headless chickens.

De Villiers, damned a year ago, is being applauded now because the Boks are winning, and that is the biggest lesson of 2009 for the Bok coach. He is and will always be judged on results; not on the game plan or the colour of his skin.