Saru bosses will this week review Peter de Villiers’ tenure as Springbok coach. MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, looks at what they might find.
I went in search of the rugby talk behind the man: his philosophy and his views of the game. I looked for his reasoning when his team won and rugby talk about why they lost. I looked for reasons to justify why he is a rugby coach and good enough to be the coach of world champions.
I found nothing of substance about Peter de Villiers and rugby.
There is only a list of laughable quotes, compiled by every Neville Nobody of the blogging world, and every leading newspaper in the rugby world.
Victories and defeats define most coaches. Comedy defines De Villiers, whom the Australasian rugby media called part-time coach and full-time comedian.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief rugby writer Greg Growden wrote that De Villiers was to rugby what Richard Pryor was to comedy – the word hilarious was used, not the word inspirational.
I wanted to reflect De Villiers’ rugby insights to the defeats and his analysis of the victories of 2009 that followed the losses of 2008 and 2010. What I got were accusations of conspiracy, referee bias and the absolute disbelief that his team ever loses. The more he watches the match tape, he said, the more he doesn’t know how his team lost.
In reflecting on finishing last in the 2010 Tri-Nations, De Villiers said there was nothing wrong with his team selections, his use of substitutions or a defensive system that conceded 22 tries in six Tri-Nations Tests.
He also did not see any reason for concern that the Boks had lost eight of their past 11 Tests to Australia, New Zealand, France and Ireland.
Everything was looking good for a successful defence of the World Cup in New Zealand next year. Instead of rugby talk, this is the internet script on De Villiers the Bok coach.
‘If we want to eye-gouge any Lions we will go down to the bushveld like we do and eye-gouge them there.’
When the British and Irish media asked De Villiers how he could justify eye-gouging, he responded: ‘If we are going on like this, why don’t we go to the nearest ballet shop, get some tutus and get a dancing shop going? There will be no eye-gouging, no tackling, no nothing and we will enjoy it.’
Other quotes, as listed on sarugbyblog.com and several other sites, included: ‘What we try to tell them is when you point your finger into the sky, don’t concentrate on the finger because you’ll miss all the heavenly glory out there. Concentrate on the heavenly glory you can bring and make yourselves so fulfilled.’
When asked to explain a Bok defeat, he responded: ‘There’s little difference between winning and losing, except you feel better after winning.’
When asked to explain his culpability as coach, he went one better than urging his players to look beyond their fingers when pointing to the sky. He said: ‘The same people who threw their robes on the ground when Jesus rode on a donkey were the same people who crowned him and hit him with sticks, and were the same people who said afterwards how we shouldn’t have done that, he’s the son of God. So that’s exactly what we do. You have to look at history as repeating itself. And I’m not saying that I’m God.’
When criticised for a lack of coaching pedigree he retorted: ‘I’m a God-given talent, I’m the best I can ever be. So what you think doesn’t bother me. I know what I am and I don’t give a damn.’
When asked if he would do anything different after losing: ‘I won’t change my style, if I change my style I will change Peter de Villiers, and then I would have to tell God that he made a mistake when he made me.’
When asked what his style was, he said: ‘People say we want to play a Peter de Villiers style of rugby. What the devil is that? Let me explain it to you. There was a time when we were isolated [due to apartheid] but when we came back what we didn’t do was look at where we were strong. Instead we copied the model of the Australians and became more structured. We thought that was the only model available.
‘We just need to add a component to our game. We need players making decisions and playing the situation. It’s been very difficult [to implement this way of thinking]. Players are so used to playing on to each other, it’s a new thing to be making split-second decisions. With this kind of game comes responsibility. I know it’s hard [for the players] because they then have to take responsibility for what they do. But whatever decision they make, I will support the players even though I won’t always agree with that decision. We didn’t say we will [sic] win or lose.
According to De Villiers no team can control winning and losing, but before the Welsh Test in Cardiff earlier this year he rubbished Welsh talk that the Boks were vulnerable because he had not selected several first-choice players. He told the Welsh: ‘We will give them a psychological advantage and we cannot allow that. We’ve read in the papers here that they believe South Africa are ripe for the picking. They’re comparing us with some fruit from a Welsh fruit farm but they need to know that when you pick fruit, it isn’t just apples and pears; there are prickly pears as well. We want to be a prickly pear for them this Saturday.’
In keeping with fruit, this was his response to winning the Tri-Nations in 2009: ‘We are very organised at the moment, we don’t want to become a fruit salad.’
In 2010, however, the Boks were the fruit salad he wanted to avoid, although De Villiers felt there was a referee conspiracy and that the world had turned on his Boks because they were so good.
He said: ‘Speaking to IRB referees boss Paddy O’ Brien is a complete waste of time … People don’t want to see other teams being successful. That is my biggest problem at the moment. We can’t go public about certain things because we don’t have all the evidence, but the body language of certain officials when things went against us in that game made us worry … The officials were so happy when decisions went against us on the day. I am talking about the No 1 rugby team in the world. Shouldn’t they really get the other guys to that level? … Or do they want to break things down so that the game can become mediocre and everyone has a chance to win it? We don’t want to dwell on that point, but if that is the case, then I feel I am wasting my time by talking to them. I will then have to reconsider talking to them.’
De Villiers has consistently remained defiant and never felt the need to be anything but himself, as he put it. ‘I’ve got a job to do.
I think I’m a strong individual, a strong character. I don’t care what people think about me, I don’t care what people say about me. It’s what I think about me and myself – and I love myself a lot.’
But when former All Blacks and New Zealand Maori prop Craig Dowd called him a puppet De Villiers demanded an apology and accused Dowd of being racist.
A year later former Australian hooker Brendan Cannon called De Villiers a clown. The Springboks and De Villiers demanded an apology from Cannon, saying the word ‘clown’ had no place in rugby.
A week later De Villiers, in his column on the official Saru website, wrote that when a Bok coach wins he is superman and when he loses he is a clown.
On beating the All Blacks in 2009 he said: ‘We went wild, wild wild – and some of the guys went wilder than that.’
When commenting on why the Boks lost two consecutive Tests to New Zealand in 2010 he accused the opposition of cheating at the ruck.
‘I do not like to prepare guys to cheat and it seems to me to be the only way forward if you want to be on top of those kind of things, and that’s 70% of our game.’
De Villiers, when he succeeded Jake White, said his philosophy of life was that even the bad days were good days, and in the past three years his belief is that there have only been good days.
When questioned about the good days that came with hardship, he again referred to the Bible. ‘If you see how Joseph got out of the pit and ended up in the palace, but between the pit and the palace there was a moerse lot of kak.’
De Villiers, whether he cares to admit it, is in the pit once again. Just when he thought he had made it to rugby’s palace in 2009, he’s back where he was in 2008, taking a beating from New Zealand and Australia.
As one blogger so aptly asked, is De Villiers a misunderstood genius or a clown? To which another blogger so aptly responded: ‘The King is Dead; long live the Clown.’
– This article first appeared in the September issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, which is distributed free with the newspaper on the second last Friday of every month.