Driving along Jan Smuts Avenue, flanked on either side by the great trees and the imposing houses of Parktown on one side and Westcliff on the other, I was yanked out of this idyllic reverie by a poster that yelled, “Jake Wants Boks Back”, the umpteenth time I’ve seen similar posters. It is a terrible indictment on our country and its divided sports culture that throughout his tenure, Peter de Villiers has had to duck an array of attacks that mostly emanate from a “How dare they appoint this man?” point of view.
From the day De Villiers took up his post as Springbok coach, there was a deafening chorus of disapproval, with insinuations that his was a token appointment. Even as the results proved Div was indeed the man for the job, despite having proved his mettle with the “baby Boks”, the snipers were ready with their cowardly arsenal.
What troubled me most about this “Jake Wants Boks Back” poster was that earlier on in the morning I had read a most disturbing column by Kevin McCallum about boorish rugby fans in Bloemfontein hurling racial insults at Bryan Habana. Now Bryan Habana is one of the finest athletes in the world, and one of the most polished rugby players on the globe. Yet some Neanderthal rugby supporter feels qualified to insult him as a kind of outsider, an intruder of sorts into the hallowed sanctuary of rugby. Such behaviour should be rooted out in rugby, and given the abundance of technology, fans that hurl such insults should be identified, prosecuted and banned for life from rugby games. This is the only punishment that will put an end to some of worst habits among some fans of South African rugby.
Of course in this environment, it has not helped that so many so-called rugby experts and analysts have weighed in, with some stooping so low as to suggest that Div is technically inept. That is just a fabrication of their own devious minds, because Div’s CV clearly shows that the man has earned his stripes in this hard game. It is not as if he appeared out of nowhere to lead the Boks. On the contrary, he had coached unfashionable sides like the Valke, instilling in the Springs-based side a desire to win that gave them many respectable Currie Cup performances. He has a breathtaking knowledge of rugby and is steeped in the culture of the game.
Like Jake before him, Div had achieved success with the “baby Boks”, and if anything, his resumé and that of Jake look remarkably similar. You would imagine that analysts would then confine themselves to on-the-field success, but Div’s tenure has been a success, and it is only when he goes through lean spells that the vultures swoop in on him ready for the kill.
For all the spectacle of reconciliation that rugby in Soweto provided, it seems that there are elements within rugby that hold on to all sorts of racial nonsense about rugby and to whom this game belongs. Rugby has a lot to answer for and if ever it is to fully shed its image as a game steeped in a long and terrible culture of exclusion, it has to get rid of these people that regularly shame the game. In this context, it is telling that so many of the leading figures in rugby weighed in on the Bees Roux case by expressing their support for the giant player, but totally failing to acknowledge the victim.
If we return for a moment to those that are calling for Div to be axed – sure the Springboks have had a poor run of late. They gave up their Tri-Nations crown before the one victory at Loftus, but this does not cancel out Div’s stellar run of previous performances. Here is a coach who won at Dunedin in New Zealand, breaking a string of Bok losses that stretched back 80 years. But who did the analysts praise for this win? The captain, yes, the captain, who wasn’t even on the field as he had travelled back to South Africa, leaving Victor Matfield to enforce Div’s instructions on the field.
Now let us not forget that throughout his tenure, Jake White did not register a single victory in New Zealand. Until Div’s victory at Dunedin in 2008, the Springboks had last won in New Zealand in 1998, when they recorded a 13-3 victory in Wellington. Div did more than just win against the All Blacks at Dunedin on that historic Saturday in July 2008, he re-established the Boks as a force in Kiwi country. He was right when he told reporters after the game,”I’ve got nothing to prove. I believe in myself, the players and God. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but the way we stood up today as a group can change those opinions.”
Over the past two years, it has struck me as odd that Jake White has either directly or through his supporters let it be known that he still regards the job of Springbok coach as his, given that when he took the job, his own predecessor did not hover around like a bad omen. It is just plain bad manners to not let go of a job, and one would have thought Jake would have known better. You would have thought that Jake would have used his success at the World Cup in France to land a plum position in rugby instead of hanging around to see what role he could force himself into within the Bok set up.
Clearly he was never ready to let go of this dream job when his employers released him from his contract after the successful campaign in France in the last Rugby World Cup. He even tried to insert himself as an advisor of sorts when Div was appointed. But this was clearly a case of clutching at straws, as the new coach could not possibly have turned to his predecessor without at the same time weakening his authority irreparably. Div did the right thing by turning down the offer of technical advice from Jake. After all the monkey of a former coach helping his successor would have fed into the offensive notion that Div was just a token appointment.
Div may not be a diplomat. He may not choose his words carefully. He obviously shoots from the hip, but his record tells us that he has been one of the most successful Bok coaches. It is to their credit that SARU did not cave in to the ridiculous demands to axe this fine coach, and Oregan Hoskins and his team have shown remarkable fortitude by sticking with Div through thick and thin. Div’s tenure provides one of the miracles of South African sport that a black coach could have led the Bok team and achieved so much with them given the terrible history of rugby.
But rugby should stop thinking of itself as belonging to a certain group, and kick out all those that still yell racist nonsense in the name of this beautiful game. They add nothing to the heritage of the game and only call attention to its once-sordid past. DM