RYAN VREDE writes that Peter de Villiers styled himself as the puppet master for the Springboks but ended his reign as no more than a puppet.
De Villiers wanted his legacy to be about evolving the Springboks tactically and implementing meaningful transformation. He failed on both counts and will be remembered for his lack of backbone in resisting the agenda of his senior players, poor selections, technical ineptitude and embarrassing media offerings.
The Springboks crashed out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage on Sunday, equalling their worst-ever performance at the global showpiece. Defeat to Australia was neither surprising nor disgraceful, but it is a fitting exit point a coach as ill-equipped as De Villiers was.
I overheard him speaking to a group of people in the Springboks’ team hotel last week. ‘I’ve been building towards this for four years,’ he said. ‘After this I don’t want to see a rugby ball.’
He shouldn’t have seen one at Test level in the first place. De Villiers was selected ahead of a far superior candidate, Heyneke Meyer. South African Rugby union president Oregan Hoskins said the decision was motivated by the need to have a black coach. Four years later Hoskins and his provincial presidents are still in power, while De Villiers will struggle to find a job with an elite franchise and will never coach a major Test nation again.
From the outset of his tenure he positioned himself as the antithesis to former coach, Jake White. He expressed strong views on a range of subjects relating to the Springboks, most notably stressing that they would play a more expansive brand of rugby and committing to improve what he said was a slow rate of transformation under White. The former ideal was shelved after one abysmal season, the senior players, most notably Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez, engineered a shift to more pragmatic approach.
Meanwhile De Villiers window-dressed beautifully with regards to the introduction of black players, without implementing any meaningful change. The core of his preferred side was the one that won the World Cup for White. Beast Mtawarira is Zimbabwean born, Odwa Ndungane was Test impostor and Chiliboy Ralepelle still knows more about the composition of tackle bags than he does about the rigours of Test rugby.
De Villiers’ record – Played 48 Won 30 Lost 18 (62.5%) – is poor, especially since he has had the finest generation of players in some time at his disposal. Examine his record against Australia and New Zealand, the benchmark against which the Springboks should measure themselves, and his mediocrity is starkly illuminated. Four wins from 12 against the Wallabies and five from 11 against the All Blacks is utterly unacceptable.
De Villiers enjoyed great success in 2009, beating the British & Irish Lions and later capturing the Tri-Nations title. However, by that stage the puppets had realised the puppet master’s lack of aptitude in handling them. They cut the strings and reattached them to his appendages.
Those players then duly decided for themselves they had a World Cup left in them. A more astute coach would have recognised they reached the very peak of their powers – particularly in the case of John Smit, Bryan Habana, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha. He claimed experience would be crucial at the World Cup. Experience, however, counts for very little when you lack the physical ability to execute the lessons experience has taught.
The Lions series also saw the nadir in De Villiers’ flirtations with insanity during press conferences. In the post-match gathering after the second Test he vehemently denied Schalk Burger has eye-gouged Luke Fitzgerald, despite video evidence showing he had. This incensed the travelling media contingent, who asked him about the incident once more on the following Monday, offering him a shot at redemption. De Villiers delivered a series of embarrassing rebuttals, none more so than: ‘If we wanted to eye gouge Lions, we would go to the bush, find some and do it there.’
Never must a political agenda, any agenda for that matter, take precedence over rugby credentials when selecting a Springbok coach. Those who drove De Villiers’ cause are the same men who desperately sought the assistance of Rassie Erasmus ahead of the World Cup to compensate for what their chosen one lacked in technical and tactical skill. They need to be accountable, Hoskins more than any.
However, De Villiers cannot be mitigated. He must be measured by the standards he has set. His repertoire of one-liners is impressive, his favourite being: ‘Even the bad days are good.’ On the contrary, the bad days have been very bad, none more so than in Wellington on Sunday.
By Ryan Vrede, in Auckland
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