The only way SA Rugby can reclaim the moral high ground is by sacking Springbok coach Peter de Villiers. Immediately. He's technically useless, a walking, talking embarrassment whose verbal diarrhoea is like hearing of Kamp Staaldraad every week. By TOBY SHAPSHAK.
There’s little difference between winning and losing, except that one feels better after winning,” Peter de Villiers declared in 2008 after the Boks lost a Tri-Nations game in Durban. The result of a Test match is not important, eye gouging is okay and publicly backing an alleged murderer is fine.
These are just the latest nonsensical statements to come from the coach of the rugby world champions. You’d expect the coach of a minnow nation to disguise the facts, confuse the situation and make outlandish claims. To complain about the referee every time your team gets beaten by a better one, who’ve adapted to the new rules and actually have a game-plan. Not the coach of the world champions, who just a year ago beat all comers.
It’s a well-known secret that the Springboks coach themselves. Led by the senior players, the Boks beat the British and Irish Lions, and won the Tri-Nations convincingly before falling to pieces on the year-end tour. But they’re all fatigued, uninspired, desperate for inspiration.
It’s an open secret that De Villiers wasn’t picked for his rugby credentials – SA Rugby president Oregan Hoskins said as much when P.Divvy was narrowly preferred over Heyneke Meyer in January 2008. Hoskins looked visibly shaken when he made the announcement, and remarkable caveat, three years ago.
It’s unfortunate that being the Springboks’ first black coach has spared him the same results-first scrutiny to which better coaches before him were exposed. The problem is Hoskins and SA Rugby are too heavily invested in backing him, in protecting the “first black coach”. The potential for their chief critic, Butana Kompela, to bellow “Racism!” is most probably constantly at the back of their minds. And there is the lucrative contract…
But his unbidden comments on a Blue Bulls player accused of allegedly beating a Tshwane policeman to death might finally be a bridge too far. “We definitely talked about Bees Roux. We feel for all South Africans and especially rugby players. A situation like this could happen to anybody. People are ugly outside, they’re dirty and they try and use everything to stop us from bringing hope to the people out there. It’s a tragic situation and we wish it upon nobody. The team supports him 100%. Not on the deed, but … how the situation developed,” he told a stunned press conference, and an even more shocked nation.
Beesgate might finally be De Villier’s end. We can only hope.
After the highs of winning the 2007 World Cup, the Springboks slumped to what had become a perennial low standard – competitive at home, weak in the Antipodes. A moment of Ricky Januarie flourish (surely his only one, and certainly last, in several years) resulted in a rare New Zealand win in 2008 – the only high point that year.
Photo: Wallabies’ James O’Connor (2nd L) breaks past South Africa’s Springboks Jean de Villiers to score during their Tri-Nations rugby union game in Bloemfontein September 4, 2010. Seen behind are Australia’s Wallabies Adam Ashley Cooper (L) and South Africa’s Springboks Bryan Habana (R). REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Last year, it was the revenge series against the Lions, who 12 years previously had beaten the Boks. And that little terrier of a fetcher flank Heinrich Brüssouw, who stole a key breakdown and set up a 53m penalty for ice-in-his-veins Morné Steyn to secure the series in the second Test. More than any other player Brüssouw, who De Villiers only included in key matches after injuries to other players (Schalk Burger in the first Lions Test, Danie Rossouw in the second and others on the end-of-year tour) was the secret ingredient to Bok success in 2009. As was a certain Loftus darling, Morné Steyn, capping a superb Super 14 season, making a step up and becoming the first choice, goal-machine flyhalf.
P.Divvy’s technical frailties are plain for all to see. He’s out of his depth, refused to listen to media advice (his absurd comments are the stuff of legend) and the rest of the rugby world (in the words of former Wallaby Brendan Cannon) think he’s a “clown”. Nobody thinks otherwise. Except, it seems, the head honchos at SA Rugby, who have fired much better coaches for much less. If ever there was a coach who needed to be sacked before he can do any more damage to the good name of the Springboks, it’s P.Divvy.
He doesn’t have the respect of the players, his competitors, any journalist from any country or any Springbok fan. He is a utter humiliation. Every week, as soon as he opens his mouth, he makes Julius Malema look erudite. And yet, his poor results alone are enough to fire him.
Jake White was almost booted out after four losses in the 2006 Tri-Nations and was ignominiously summoned back from Europe mid-tour to explain himself. But White, who was despised by the rugby president and interfered with at every level (appointed a team manager he’d never met and ultimately forcing him to reapply for his job in the week he contested the World Cup final in France) had a plan.
He won the World Cup – although Fourie du Preez’s almost single-handed demolition of England in the group stages was the key turning point. White left a talented bunch of youngsters, who he’d backed in tough situations, kept playing them until their experience built up and they’d have the cool heads to deal with the intensity of finals rugby. His plan worked. His players (especially his hand-picked, loyal captain in the statesman-like John Smit) knew he had their backs, he backed them, they backed themselves. They delivered.
When De Villiers was chosen over Meyer – who had guided the Blue Bulls to Super 12 success and built them into the most dominant rugby club in the country, investing in a rugby academy and producing professionalism across the board that only the Sharks have matched – he inherited White’s rich legacy.
The exhausted squad had a torrid 2008, in part because they were fatigued after the highs of France and the many long months of playing. But also because De Villiers, and to a lesser extent Dick Muir, tried to reinvent the wheel with a “playing-the-game-in-front-of-you” strategy. Clearly no one in SA Rugby remembered how well that worked for Harry Viljoen, who at least had the dignity to resign when he realised he couldn’t hack it.
White liked to say he won the World Cup in spite of SA Rugby. Last year the Springboks won the Lions series and Tri-Nations in spite of De Villiers. “Helium Pete” as he was first known because of his wheezy voice, nearly scuppered the first Lions test by pulling Captain Colossus and a host of top players with 20 minutes remaining. It robbed the Boks of all their rhythm and momentum, but a front row injury allowed Smit back on, where his unparalleled leadership got them the win. P.Divvy did it again in Smit’s 100th game in Soweto, where it allowed the All Blacks back into the game and let them clinch this year’s Tri-Nations. Perhaps the most painful aspect of this was that it exposed an exhausted Smit, who fell off a tackle in the final move of the game that resulted in the winning try.
John Smit, who restored South African rugby to its pride after the hell of Kamp Staaldraad and the abysmal showing at the 2003 World Cup under mad Rudolf Straueli, deserved better. De Villiers has forced the World Cup-winning captain to play tighthead prop at international level (an impossible ask that with which he always struggled), and for which he apparently put on 20kg. De Villiers then switched him back to his preferred position at hooker, when Bismarck du Plessis was injured and expected him to return to his former mobility. It’s been a most painful sight to see Smit gasping for air, clearly fatigued, soldiering on for his country.
His cool head saw the Boks bounce back from 14-0 after 4 minutes and 21-7 after 10 minutes at Loftus against Australia. In Bloemfontein, which has a higher altitude than Pretoria I discovered this week thanks to an eagle-eyed reader, the Boks were four tries down, 31-6 after 24 minutes. The second-half fightback was again superb, but there’s no way to keep that up. The defence was a mess.
Smit, who increasingly has had to shoulder the blame because he’s put in front of the media as P.Divvy’s moronic statements just ellicit more ridicule, admitted as much “that’s not a good performance and certainly not rugby that will win us a World Cup”. Smit deserves better.
Has any of this occurred to Planet P.Divvy, you might ask?
After the Bloemfontein loss, he said: “We have structures in place that can take us to the World Cup and beyond if they are executed properly”. Yeah right.
In 2008, when the Boks lost three Tri-Nations games in a row, he earnestly proclaimed: “I believe we’re developing a style here that the whole world will fear”. He once promised to “pull a rat out the hat” and that “talk is cheap and money buys the whisky”. Asked a bona fide rugby question about Dan Carter, he replied: “I know dancing is also a contact sport, but rugby is far from dancing. If you want to run with the big dogs then sometimes you have to lift your leg”.
When Burger was banned for eye-gouging, his response to this heinous and inexcusable practise was a misplaced backing of his player: “If we want to eye-gouge any Lions we will go down to the bushveld like we do and eye-gouge them there.”
He really talks like that. It’s not a Trevor Noah joke. He really, maddeningly believes the drivel that comes out of his mouth. Call it herbal diarrhoea and you wouldn’t be wrong, would you Herschelle.
We’ve all stopped laughing at his malapropisms, his ludicrous mangling of the English language and his petty rants, including they “should give rugby back to the whites” when the criticism, however misplaced in that particular instance, became too much.
Peter de Villiers has no Plan B. It’s hard to see if he ever had a Plan A. In Jean de Villiers, he had the best inside centre in world rugby, so he played him on the wing. Januarie got fat, lazy and passed the ball badly – so he kept Ruan Pienaar, arguably one of our greatest talents, sitting on the bench. Zane Kirchner, solid for the Bulls in the Super 14, just couldn’t make the step up to Test rugby – while Frans Steyn languished in France, ostensibly because De Villiers and he had a fall out. Bryan Habana is a pale shadow of his former self, fatigued as badly as Victor Matfield and half the senior players, who thankfully will get a break over the November Grand Slam tour. The list goes on and on.
Sure, he’s introduced some new talent: Francois Hougaard, Gio Aplon and Flip van der Merwe have all delivered this year, but he’s missed as many opportunities as he’s given in a country with such abundant talent. His obstinacy over including a fetcher (an unfortunate flaw White shared) has seen the Springboks beaten at the breakdown week after week.
But this is the man who claimed after three losses in 2008, “Winning and losing are the same thing to me, it’s just that winning is much nicer.” You just can’t say things like this when you’re the coach of the talented, but exhausted world champions and expect ever to be taken seriously again.
Hoskins and SA Rugby have to do the right thing and fire him. Immediately. Do the right thing, a hurting nation begs you, fire him. DM
Shapshak is editor of Stuff magazine, but has twice been sports editor of the Mail & Guardian.
Main photo: South Africa’s coach Peter De Villiers watches his players train in preparation for their first rugby union test match against France in Toulouse, southwestern France November 13, 2009. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau.
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