MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, says an unwillingness to learn and an inability to control his ego has resulted in Peter de Villiers being remembered more as a comedian than a rugby coach.
In 2008 the former SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd CEO Rian Oberholzer and his successor Songezo Nayo asked me to attend a workshop with Peter de Villiers. Oberholzer and Nayo had left SA Rugby and had formed their own company. Both men felt strongly that Jake White’s successor as Bok coach had to be black and that the evolution of the game in South Africa demanded it. I felt Heyneke Meyer, as a merit selection, should succeed White, but I also could not counter the view that if not a black Bok coach in 2008, then when?
The duo, whom I respect massively, wanted me to spend a session with De Villiers and assess his presentation for the Bok coaching job. They also wanted me to share my views with him on the 2007 World Cup-winning squad and participate in a general discussion about Bok rugby, pre-2007 and post the success in Paris. They asked that I give him a view on the Bok coaches I had written about since 1992 and the two I had worked with (Harry Viljoen and Rudolf Straeuli) as Bok communications manager.
De Villiers, at the meeting, was very animated. Initially he had all the answers. His Boks would run the ball and never again would Bryan Habana play a Test in which he was ignored as an attacking weapon. De Villiers was referring here to the defensive mindset of White’s Boks in the 2007 World Cup final against England.
De Villiers described John Smit as Jake White’s boy and said the player would play no part in his Bok set-up. He said Percy Montgomery was done as a player, had reservations about Jean de Villiers as a Test centre and was not very flattering about the ability of Butch James and Juan Smith. He had a plan with Schalk Burger, but said that if he got the Bok coaching job his ‘go-to men’ would be the Bulls pairing of Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez.
He told Oberholzer he was going to clean out the World Cup squad and build a team that would revolutionise the way the Boks played, and change the perception the world had of Bok rugby. His team would also represent black South Africa.
Oberholzer, whose company included the management of players and coaches, represented De Villiers in 2008 and Oberholzer was primarily responsible for co-ordinating De Villiers’ job application and campaign.
Oberholzer informally chaired the meeting and once De Villiers had told me what he thought of the 2007 World Cup winners he asked me to tell De Villiers what I thought of the squad. I said the team was built on six pillars, with Montgomery the key among the back three. Jean de Villiers (despite being injured in France) was the defensive brain in the backline and Du Preez the best scrumhalf in the world and the dictator of how the Boks played. There was no backline player in South Africa or the world with a better appreciation of Test rugby’s percentages and understanding of field position in finals rugby.
Having worked with and written about most of the squad since 2000 and having been privy to what their peers thought of them as players, I singled out Smith as the glue in the Bok loosies, Matfield as a lock genius and Smit as essential to the further development of the team. Oberholzer and I argued that the World Cup winners had a future until at least the completion of the 2009 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa. It was our belief that an evaluation of those players should be made at the end of 2009 once De Villiers had worked with them.
De Villiers showed me his powerpoint presentation and in it he refused to acknowledge anything about the 2007 World Cup squad. That, I said, was a mistake as he had the nucleus of a great team whose achievements couldn’t be wished away. Oberholzer was adamant De Villiers needed to show the public his passion for rugby and his understanding of the game and that the public saw him as a rugby coach and not just a black coach. In that meeting I was impressed with De Villiers’ passion and his appreciation of the game. He made a lot of sense when he spoke in general terms about the game, but there was a lot of prejudice against White and against the establishment. At that meeting he viewed a lot of the World Cup winners as part of the establishment he had felt had denied him opportunities within South African rugby. He also felt the players were too close to White.
Oberholzer and I suggested that if he got the Bok job he should make Smit his captain and allow for the natural evolution of the 2007 World Cup-winning squad. Getting Smit in would allow him time to settle as a national coach and it would also ensure the momentum of the 2007 victory in Paris.
We both also encouraged him to bring back Montgomery and play him for another year. The feeling was Monty could add value in mentoring his successor from within the squad and that he would be the first Bok coach to give back to one of the legends of the game. De Villiers liked the idea that Montgomery could play a mentoring and playing role for a season and then continue with the squad as a kicking and backline skills coach. This would show continuity. I was writing Montgomery’s biography and I said I would speak to Montgomery about it when I met with him in France.
De Villiers asked me if I knew about a post-World Cup fight between Smit and Jean de Villiers, in which De Villiers had hit Smit. He said he had been told this and it had influenced his view on Smit. He felt if a player could punch his captain then there was no respect for him. He also asked me to tell him more about why the players so hugely respected Smith.
I had not heard the De Villiers-Smit story, but said I would find out. A few days later I called Oberholzer with what had happened. The players were on the way to Schalk Burger’s father’s farm as part of the World Cup celebrations (when in Cape Town) and they had all been drinking. Smit had jokingly spat red wine at De Villiers during the bus trip to the farm. The wine went on a white Bok pullover, De Villiers instantly reacted with anger and punched him. Both players immediately apologised to each other.
Peter de Villiers e-mailed me his presentation and I made some recommendations. He thanked me by return e-mail, in the name of the Lord and Christianity, and said the world needed people like me. I never saw his final presentation and don’t know if he accepted or rejected any of my input. That was the last communication I had with De Villiers, as it was Oberholzer who would speak to me before the 2008 international season.
De Villiers got the Bok job, Oberholzer took charge of his contract negotiations and between Jonty Goslett (a former SA Rugby employee who also joined Oberholzer and Nayo) and myself a meeting was arranged between De Villiers and Smit, who was in South Africa recovering from injury.
Smit impressed De Villiers, who committed to bringing him back to South Africa to lead the Boks. When he appointed Smit as his Bok captain I wrote the press release (on Oberholzer’s request). Oberholzer was concerned about Cheeky Watson’s reaction to Smit being made captain. Watson had been instrumental in getting De Villiers the Bok job, but one of the conditions was that Luke Watson would be made captain.
Cheeky Watson and De Villiers fell out when the coach invested everything in Smit’s leadership and never made true on his promise to combine his coaching with Luke Watson’s captaincy.
Outside Smit, Oberholzer had convinced De Villiers it was right to attempt to bring back Montgomery and it was necessary to keep Smith in South Africa.
Oberholzer asked me to contact Smith and assure him he would make the Boks and give the player comfort that De Villiers would select him. There was talk Smith was going to go overseas because of a belief De Villiers was not going to select him.
I also spoke at length to Montgomery and once he was amenable to the possibility of a one-year return, his 100th Test at Newlands and the Bok kicking job, De Villiers flew to France to meet with the player.
Eugene Eloff was the first choice to assist De Villiers, but he turned down the offer. De Villiers then wanted former Bok coach Carel du Plessis, but nothing materialised and it was then that he turned to Dick Muir. Oberholzer influenced the appointment of Gary Gold, mostly because of Gold’s attention to detail and analysis. De Villiers had made it clear he didn’t coach off a clipboard and Gold was the safety net to a De Villiers-Muir combination that was carefree and all about attack.
It took Smit, Matfield, Du Preez and Montgomery a year to change De Villiers’ mindset about how Test rugby should be played and in 2009 De Villiers allowed himself to be guided by the input of the senior players, most notably Smit, Matfield and Du Preez.
De Villiers, by 2010, had lost faith in Muir and Gold and tried to have them fired. He approached every leading provincial coach in South Africa to assist him on the end-of-year Grand Slam tour. Every coach turned down
De Villiers and he was forced to continue with Muir and Gold. The game’s administrators would also not agree to firing the coaches because it would mean having to pay them out and pay their replacements. No replacements could be found because none were prepared to do an ambulance job.
Another decision taken within SA Rugby was to provide De Villiers with as many consultants as necessary in 2011 to mask his coaching deficiencies. These appointments included Rassie Erasmus (technical) and Jacques Nienaber (defence) for the World Cup. It was too late to fire De Villiers.
The decision was forced on De Villiers to bring in Erasmus to provide the technical input so obviously missing in the Boks since 2008.
Erasmus would get a camp in Rustenburg with the core of the World Cup squad, who would miss the two overseas Tri-Nations Tests, and he would get a month after that to prepare them for a successful World Cup defence.
De Villiers, in confirming Erasmus, told the media: ‘With my player management skills and Rassie’s technical knowledge we can conquer the world.’
That comment said everything you needed to know about De Villiers’ four-year tenure. It has been a huge disappointment. He only got the job because of the colour of his skin, but he failed to recognise the opportunity and failed to change the view that he was only given the job because of political reasons, as was confirmed by South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins in 2008.
De Villiers was not able to manage his ego and refused to allow Oberholzer to do the same. The two parted ways, as have most who were instrumental in getting De Villiers a job he never had the emotional or rugby intelligence to negotiate.
De Villiers, out of his depth and not capable of acknowledging his shortcomings, gave control to Smit and the senior players, whose World Cup performance will determine how De Villiers is remembered as a Bok coach.
Personally, I’ll remember him as a coach who didn’t have the capacity to grow, to learn or to want to learn. I’ll remember him as a coaching embarrassment in the past four years
and not as a winning or losing Rugby World Cup coach.
At this point I need to apologise to the rugby community for any small part I may have played in him getting the job.
I’ll also remember him for being true to his word about Smit, Smith, Du Preez, Matfield, De Villiers and Montgomery once Oberholzer had persuaded him these were the men he needed in his corner.
And I will remember him for being more comedian than rugby coach. I will also remember him telling me, via e-mail, the world needs more people like me. Unfortunately, I can’t say Bok rugby ever again needs more coaches like him.
– This article first appeared in the September issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, which is on sale now at selected retailers. Get the magazine FREE with Business Day newspaper on the second last Friday of the month.