After a bloody nose, coach sticks with what works
Clinton Van Der Berg writes for the Sunday Times that apart from the results, the measure of any coach is how he copes with expectation, criticism and the inescapable glare of public life.
The results are tangible — just look at yesterday and Peter de Villiers’s previous 12 Tests — but the other elements reveal themselves in different ways.
For all his faults, De Villiers has shown doggedness and a reasonably thick skin during a year that has produced a familiar story line: controversy, defeats, conspiracies and carping.
It is the lot of every Springbok coach.
But the ex-scrumhalf is different from the rest. Even after Test wreckages and lurid reports of a sex scandal, he remains unfailingly positive.
“You get only one life and must live it to the full,” he said with customary enthusiasm this week. “It’s your own fault if you miss something great.”
De Villiers came into the job under difficult circumstances. In many ways, all he could do was fail — Jake White, his predecessor, had seduced the nation by winning the World Cup. How could he top that?
Moreover, he was openly billed as SA’s first black coach, a millstone he neither sought nor deserved. Inevitably, there were claims of tokenism, claims that rang true when Oregan Hoskins, his boss, said the appointment was made “not entirely for rugby reasons.”
Whether he liked it or not, De Villiers was immediately on the back foot.
Undeterred, he chose to do things his way and not in the image of White. He flirted with a fresh, open game, but smartly realised that consistency and structure weren’t mutually exclusive.
“My style is exactly how rugby’s always been played,” he explained this week.
“If you don’t dominate, you can’t play. Be direct, keep the ball. If the occasion allows, play the situation. There’s no Peter de Villiers style if you don’t do the basic job. My job is simply to empower the players.”
In other words, after bloodying his nose he chose to wind his neck in and stick to what works for the Boks.
Whatever else he achieves, De Villiers will find it hard to top the moment in July when the Boks ended a 10-year drought in New Zealand. It was a remarkable win achieved against great odds. To his credit, De Villiers didn’t crow.
And yet he could have: a succession of coaches, among them White, failed to win in New Zealand.
But then De Villiers missed a trick. The Boks lost at home to Australia and to New Zealand. The goodwill dissipated quickly; the jury is still out on whether he has the nous or the personality to make the Boks a better, stronger, more formidable team than they were under White. They will need to be when they play the Lions in a three-Test series in May.
Yet De Villiers, like all post-isolation Bok coaches, must also be measured beyond the scoreboard. In the instance of transformation, he has exceeded expectations. Five minutes into last weekend’s Test against Scotland, there were eight black players on the field. It wasn’t even mentioned and the Test was won. That’s progress.
Specifically, players such as Adi Jacobs, Beast Mtawarira and JP Pietersen have thrived under the De Villiers method.
Yet his first season also brought great drama, not least when he was embroiled in a sex-tape scandal not of his own doing. De Villiers was caught in the middle of a bizarre conspiracy that eventually burned itself out. He foolishly put it down to a “racist plot” and was censured for threatening to “give the job back to the whites”.
For a man who revels in his tough- guy image (and has the moustache to back it up), it was a telling moment of weakness. There’s no doubt De Villiers is an acquired taste — he is very much his own man and unlike any Bok coach before him. He is variously funny, puzzling, curious and cutting, sometimes all at once.
His press conferences have become famous for their weird moments and homespun philosophies. Certainly, this paper has taken some delight in projecting his homilies, although, to be fair, much of what he intends to say is often lost in translation. English is not his first language and yet he tries valiantly to make his point in English, usually with peculiar results.
He claims not to care what people think. “I was made in a concrete mixer with water, stones and cement. I’m tough,” he said after his team belted the Wallabies 53-8 at Ellis Park.
Yet he tore a strip off a black colleague on this paper for mild criticism: “If you want to be white, why don’t you be white?” he snapped.
Yes, he does surly as well as strange. But he disputes the assertion that the job has brought him days both good and bad.
“I’ve only had good days up to now,” he insists. “I like criticism, I really like it. When [media] opinion becomes fact, you start worrying. I don’t read the papers, I don’t listen to radio, I have too much to do. I was appointed to coach rugby. Outside that, my family is important — that’s what keeps me busy.”
If nothing else, De Villiers has brought a riot of colour and fun to the SA sporting landscape. For that alone, we should be grateful.Tweet