When he turns up for the interview, Bok coach Peter de Villiers’ response to inquiry after his well-being is: “Even the bad days are good”.
But he doesn’t hesitate to talk straight either
Simnikiwe Xabanisa writes in the Sunday Times that it’s a line he always uses and when pressed to explain why, he says it’s a song from his youth.
“I can’t remember who sang it,” he says, breaking into an impromptu rendition. “But it was before your time .”
The exchange is instructive about two things when it comes to the “first black Bok coach”.
Positivity is his default attitude, but he is not immune to making the same assumptions others make of him.
Those two qualities should serve him well in the job because when the going predictably gets tough, he needs to maintain his bounce and a healthy scepticism about all his critics.
Never has a Bok coach’s appointment been met with such doubt. The rugby public, the SA Rugby Union (Saru) and the media have been united in their scepticism of De Villiers since he pipped the favourite, Heyneke Meyer, to the post.
The public have an unhealthy obsession with his blackness. Saru slighted him in the contractual negotiations and the media have done what they’ve always done — use what he has said against him.
As a result, his four months “in charge” have taught him to take the sentiments of all three parties with a pinch of salt.
“There are a lot of perceptions out there,” he says of the public’s response to him. “People have their perceptions, but their mistake is thinking their perceptions are the only ones.
“I’m not here to judge people and I don’t want to know what they feel about me. The one thing I know is I’m in this job to make a success of it, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
The stand-off with Saru over his contract, he says, was about principles: “As soon as you become materialistic you don’t make rational decisions because money determines what kind of decisions you make.
“I’ve been appointed Springbok coach because I’m good. The terms I fought for were based on principles and I would never budge on those. I was prepared to walk away if necessary. I won’t be anybody’s puppet.”
With the media having played a significant role in the demise of many a Bok coach, De Villiers was almost contemptuous on what he had learnt of them in his four months on the job.
“The local media thrive on negativity. They have nothing good to say about their country,” he says, “If there is something bad about this country the local media will break a leg to be the first to write about it.
“They’re a bunch of negative people who live in a world of their own, and are merely there to earn a living and not make SA a better place . My approach to that is if you can’t live with them and can’t join them, leave them alone. We need the media, but the media’s not my life. ”
“My life is about showing a positive message to SA,” he says. “If a guy like me, who came through the apartheid years and was down many times in his life, can stand up, still be positive and make it to the top, then everyone can make it.
In-between scanning for speed bumps and pot-holes to his progress, he has already done some good things. The best was his retention of John Smit as Bok captain.
“We quickly forget how good people are or were for this country,” says De Villiers. “It’s something that happens with our role models and I think the media has something to do with that by painting a negative picture of personalities.”
De Villiers’s picture of Jake White’s captain is positively rosy: “John Smit is the most respected rugby captain in the world at the moment. Wherever you go , people outside South Africa talk about him with a lot of respect .
“He’s a World Cup-winning captain, he’s got a lot of intellectual properties, he’s a motivator by nature, he’s a true ambassador for this country and a very honest man. Even if he doesn’t start every Test, he’ll bring a lot to the team by just being there.”
Given his attitude to Smit, his private chat with Victor Matfield at George Airport and Saru’s relaxation of the restrictions on the selection of overseas Boks, many expected De Villiers to lean more on the expatriate internationals than before.
Yet his views on the matter are almost contrary: “When you look at the Stormers, the Sharks and some of the other players from the other teams, I don’t think we have a shortage of great players in our country. If you decide to leave this country it’s your decision.
“We’ll respect it, but please don’t expect to have your bread buttered on both sides. If you play outside the borders of SA you have to be very, very good. Otherwise you won’t make it.”
De Villiers will find that the biggest test of his tenure will be his transformation record.
With Saru president Oregan Hoskins having all but labelled his appointment an affirmative- action one, he will be expected to have a solution to a problem that has proved impossible to solve in the 16 years since rugby unity.
Encouragingly, he doesn’t talk numbers when asked about his approach : “A rugby player is not a brick, he’s got feelings. When he’s good, he’s good, and when he’s not he’s not.
“You need to be honest and tell him what you expect of him, what he’s doing wrong and how he can improve.”
De Villiers’ moment of reckoning, when all the speculative talk around him gives way to debate about his actual coaching, comes in a month’s time.
By coincidence, his first game is against Six Nations champions Wales, a nation he supported in the early 1990s because he did all his coaching courses there.
“I learned a lot there,” he says. “They place a premium on skills. I also learned that you can’t teach someone skills. You can improve them, but you can’t teach them because when the going gets tough, a guy goes back to what he knows.”
It’s an approach he will try to instil in the Boks, moving away from the ultra-physical approach favoured by White.
“No one way is the right way to play. I just hope the difference is good for the country.”
So do the public, Saru and possibly even the media.Tweet