New Springbok coach Peter de Villiers faces a huge challenge in 2008, including six Tests against Australia and New Zealand, but he is determined to stamp his mark on South African rugby.
We caught up with him in Paarl earlier this week for an in-depth discussion.
I was born in Paarl and grew up here as well. The first time I went to college was when I left Paarl, in 1977.
From about the age of nine, I had many scrapbooks of South African rugby players. I could even make out who the players were just by looking at their silhouettes. I knew everybody’s style.
Some of the players from that era who I admired were H O de Villiers, Dawie de Villiers, all the guys who were in the papers in the old apartheid days.
At school level, I played for the Boland Provincial (Saru) team as a scrumhalf. At college, I made the South African College team and I played in the Springbok (Saru) trials.
The best player I ever played with or against, and he was really the best, black and white, was Julian Smith. He was also a scrumhalf.
There were also many other big names at the time. In fact, it would fill up 10 books!
We had guys like Jocelyn Ontong from Worcester, he was very good; Peter Jooste was also there, Clive Thomas, Randy Marinus, Richard Nel – they were all very good players. There was also a centre that very few people knew about, Chris Ludick.
I made the decision to play under the Saru banner. I could’ve played under the Federation banner if I wanted to.
I was made offers to play there. But for me it was a principle decision. It was a principle matter. And, because I was a strong believer in principles, I had no regrets about my decision. I made that decision because I didn’t agree with the political undermining of people.
I always believed a person couldn’t just be a rugby player on a Saturday. You are supposed to be a rugby player for seven days a week, because rugby is a part of your life. It is about how you use your God-given talents and how you can help your people as well.
As a result, I couldn’t isolate myself from my people. Non-racialism was very important to me, and it is what I stand for today. It is something that we still need to strive for today. We have to change the way that certain things have been done, are done and will be done.
You were Springbok assistant coach to Nick Mallett in 1997. Tell us about that experience.
I think it was a learning curve for me. I was prepared to sacrifice myself and the post for what I believed in.
Although I had also learned a lot, I also stood up quite strongly against things that I didn’t believe in. And that maybe caused the relationship between us to not always be the best.
If it were about playing activities and so forth, then I wouldn’t have had a problem. But the principle of how people of colour were treated and looked at angered me tremendously. And I couldn’t agree with that state of affairs: the fact that a guy must just be there because he has to.
Certain players were treated differently to others, and I couldn’t handle that. And not only the players but some of the other members of the management were treated differently as well. And maybe not openly, but I can read between the lines. I understand people and their characters.
If I had to play along with everything, I would’ve been there for longer. But I couldn’t continue. It is exactly the reason why I decided to play under the Saru banner: because I couldn’t say yes to that kind of mistreatment.
I was prepared to come back home from the tour. I told the team manager that I am going home. I told him that I was not going from France to England with the team.
There was no way that I could continue witnessing what was happening in that team, because then I was part of what was happening. Then, because it would have caused a major political problem in the country if I had to leave the team, there were promises made that we would be handled better.
I was never told that I am not part of the Springboks any more. I never resigned and I have not been chased away from that team until today. No one has told me about that until today. I just read in the newspapers that I wasn’t part of the team any more.
The best thing out of that whole saga was that I never went to find out why I was not part of the team any more. I did some introspection and told myself that no person has rights over my life. And if anybody is prepared to chase me away, then there is something wrong with me, because I must be irreplaceable. And that was a good grounding for my life, because I could then better myself from there.
I read a lot, I found out how things should be done, and while I had already completed my coaching courses, this was an opportunity to better myself in other areas. I am a fighter, because I don’t like unfairness and injustice. But I have never fought against people, but rather issues. If people took that personally, then it is their problem.
There are so many! Everybody that has come through in the last few years: Joe van Niekerk, Gcobani Bobo, Wikus van Heerden, Adrian Jacobs, Conrad Jantjes, Fabian Juries, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, J P Pietersen, Bakkies Botha. Everybody that there is, basically, has been through my hands at one time or another.
You know, I have a view in life and that is: “Everything that you have control over, and that you can change, then do it.” If you don’t have control over something in your life, then you must live with it. And I cannot tell you what you must think and say. And I cannot take responsibility for the perception that the people out there have about me.
All that I can say is that they missed out on giving me a chance to carry over my knowledge to their players. I believe that everything in life is there to better people. So I don’t blame anyone nor have anything against anybody. A lot of people say I had a problem with the Falcons.
Now, if my problems with the Falcons were so big, then why would they call me up and say when am I available so that they can make me a lifetime member of the union? Sometimes people don’t like it when you are direct and honest. Then afterwards, they start realising that it is actually better to be direct and honest and to work with someone like that: you know what he is thinking, you know what he is doing, rather than someone that could stab you in the back.
I was sitting at home and they called me and said that it cannot be true that such a rugby talent can sit at home. They said they want to use me in some capacity.
There are so many unions in this country and no one thought of contacting me.
From 1997, I was Springbok assistant coach, coached at three under-19 World Cups, Super 12 assistant coach, Currie Cup coach, Vodacom Cup coach, under-21 coach. The fact that no one was interested in that knowledge was surprising.
What I did was to think: “I wonder what would Danie Craven have done?” And there the answer came from that quarter, when Stellenbosch contacted me and said they wanted to use me as a consultant, especially to stand by (coach) Chean Roux with the first team. That was almost a lifeline for me in terms of coaching. I can tell you, if it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I would’ve been involved in coaching today.
I started to believe that it wasn’t in my destiny to be in coaching any more. Stellenbosch gave my coaching life a fresh boost. That’s why I will say that that is the one team I will always be willing to go back to and help out to make them strong.
I was in Cape Town, luckily close enough to get to the Saru offices in Newlands. So Johan Prinsloo had asked someone to call me, and asked if I could come to the office. And I said: “Of course,” in the hope that I did get the job. They didn’t tell me over the telephone.
Johan first joked with me when I got there. He asked me what I was doing there, and I explained the situation to him. He then said that the staff should first check with him! But I was prepared for the moment, as I said earlier. And when he told me how close it was, 10-9, I felt very happy, because if you win a 100m race by five or six lengths, then the other guys aren’t in your class. If you win the race by a foot, then you are truly the best because the other competitors came so close to winning.
Firstly, what do we define as political in this land? If you don’t get your way, is one argument political? If a black guy beats a white guy, is it political? There were two voting procedures, not just one – one on the committee and one on the Presidents’ Council. I believe that I won both.
So how political can it then be? For all the people that have an opinion on this matter, I want to say that I respect their opinion. But they must start realising that it is just an opinion. If someone says something and he has facts to back it up, then I don’t have a problem. And the fact is that I won both votes.
All I can say now is that I would never have said that if I were the Saru president. Sometimes there are more important things to do than to make a statement. It affected me quite a bit, but as briefly as it bothered me, I was over it again, because I hoped that it was just his opinion.
I know that there are other things at play. All I can promise the people out there is that I will never make political decisions and then bring rugby into the debate. I will make rugby decisions.
And, if it was a transformation appointment, as Hoskins alluded to, then one can deduce that there were nine presidents who voted against transformation. That is the implication of what he said. We can then deduce that there are nine presidents who do not support transformation. And that would concern me greatly. So I hope it was just his opinion and not a fact.
The fact that you want to get structures in place and create working relationships with people takes some time. This is a big country and people have their own ideologies about things. The challenge to sell your plans to everybody is sometimes difficult. And it is important to tell yourself that you are not the only one with an opinion.
The Super 14 is the shop window of South African rugby and I will do everything in my power to ensure that our teams do well. I believe that the better our teams perform, the quicker we will become the No 1 team in world rugby. The quicker we win out there, the quicker a winning culture will develop.
At the moment, it is a bit of a mess, because the teams are still getting used to the laws. I think it is another example where we should think twice in future to saying yes to anything in rugby.
I think these laws will definitely suit Australia. I think they will do well because there will be more open play and less scrummaging. It is a huge disadvantage for the Springbok team.
We play with the new laws in the Super 14 and then the week after the tournament we play with the old laws against Wales and Italy, and then we go back to the new laws in the Tri-Nations. I feel really sorry for the players!
Every position has its own unique requirements. For example, a flyhalf must have the ability to break the line or at least be able to create the gaps so that a centre can break the line. I will see who can do that first. It doesn’t matter how big or how small he is. If he displays those qualities that we are looking for, then such a guy will definitely have the inside lane. Then all the other stuff of the position comes into consideration: can he kick, how is his tactical play?
I always look at combinations when it comes to loose forwards. For example, I would rather choose a very good smaller player than an average bigger player and vice versa.
But it all depends on the combinations. I could decide to pick two smaller players and one bigger guy who is a powerful runner. The smaller guys could be more skilful and do work on the ground, while a big guy can be the ball-carrier to complement them.
We also have to look at what challenge the opposition presents us with, and play it accordingly.
A captain must display strong leadership abilities. He must have the ability to make unpopular decisions. He must have the ability to be 50 percent player and 50 percent team on merit is that if his form drops, he won’t be respected anyway.
We are still working out the details of how we are going to do it, but there will definitely be one.
If, after four rounds of the Super 14, a player sees where he is ranked at that moment, he can then ask what he must do to improve. Then the competition will just get stronger and we will be able to choose the best possible team.
But it doesn’t mean that the player who tops the rankings in each position will automatically make the Bok team.
The player needs to fit in with the dynamics of the team as well. We could have a case where a player is well ahead of the others on the list, but he is incapable of working with others and his nature would be disruptive to the side. Then, we will rather go with the second-placed guy who can offer the team much more.
I think that the fact that I have a very strong character and am thick-skinned is one of the reasons why I got the job.
Everybody out there has an opinion, and there are ways in which matters can be discussed. But if the president gets involved via the newspapers, then I would feel that I wasn’t open enough to listen to what he had to say. Then I can’t be angry with him. I would first have to look at myself and think: “How open was I to listen to his opinion?”
My biggest concern or thing that I wish to avoid is to build an ego around me in this job. This position is for all South Africans. Big egos won’t benefit anybody.
The main aspect here is that everybody has a way in which he would want to do certain things in life. And structures came from a country like Australia. They didn’t have a lot of talent. And the less talent you have, the more structures you need to have in place. And the more talent you have, the less structure you need in your game. You can deduce for yourself where South Africa fits in.
I am a winner. I don’t have a plan to say I am targeting this game or that to win or lose. So I’m going all out to win all the games.
It is a fact that it will be tough to face New Zealand away, but our preparation must be such that, while we do not have control over the result, we have control over how we are going to play.
I have no admiration for New Zealand. We do respect them because they are a well-rounded team. We have beaten New Zealand many times with the teams that have played under me. So I think we will know how to beat New Zealand.
Those players know that they mustn’t give New Zealand too much respect.
If you look at New Zealand and us and compare the players as a team, then you will see that we have much more talent than what they have. There’s nothing wrong with our talent, so there are other reasons why we are not beating them. That is what I want to discover and sort out.
He was someone who was ahead of his time. I strive to fit in with what he prescribed. Players must start enjoying themselves again on the field and become people again instead of being robots. And I say that because I think there is too much structure in our game. Players do not make their own decisions any more. I don’t want to say that they are robots, but you know that robots do not make decisions!
I maintain that Julian Smith was the best and most exciting player I have ever seen. There are other exciting players around the world who do wonderful things on the field, but Julian just did some amazing things. He made big men stand still or sometimes even fall over without anybody touching them. He was just great. He was a thinker of the game and knew his rugby.
I think the Springbok symbol is a policy matter. I don’t want to concern myself with such matters. I would rather talk about rugby. So let that issue be decided by the people that make that decision, and I will abide by their decision.
Firstly, they only won the World Cup in 1987 because South Africa did not participate in that tournament!
I believe that they haven’t won a World Cup since because we were there. We are their biggest fear. They were already thinking what they are going to do with us in the final and then forgot about the other matches that they still had to play.
I have done it in the past. In 2005, when we won the under-21 World Championship, I shaved off all my hair, including my beard.
But what I can tell you is that, waking up the next morning, when I looked in the mirror, I got the fright of my life! And the main reason why I don’t intend to shave off the moustache is because I don’t want the rest of South Africa to get a shock as well!