It’s strategy – on and off the field
Throughout his tenure as the first black Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers was in the news, and not always for the right reasons. His battle to be accepted and respected by the rugby fraternity started from the moment his appointment was announced, when his new boss admitted that De Villiers had got the job for reasons ‘other than only rugby’. This is an excerpt from his autobiography, written with Gavin Rich
I was lucky enough to work with many talented players at under-19 level. Adi Jacobs and Jean de Villiers would later combine as centres for the Springboks when I was coaching the Boks, while Joe van Niekerk was another youngster who showed his potential at under-19 level.
The under-19 guys seemed to enjoy my coaching style, and it seemed as if most of the support staff eventually liked it too. When the wins came, we thus enjoyed them so much more.
An incident that may explain my coaching philosophy occurred during one of my early under-19 tournaments, in France. We had won a game comfortably, by more than 70 points, and afterwards some of the boys ignored the curfew and slipped out to go to a disco.
I was woken up in my hotel room by the manager, Ronald Bantam, to be told that some of the players had gone out. The way everyone was behaving you would have thought they had just received news that an aeroplane had crashed into the building.
I volunteered to go down to the disco to pick the boys up. Looking very sheepish, they came back with me to the hotel and went to bed. They had been told that we would be conducting a disciplinary hearing the next morning, which would involve the entire squad, to get to the bottom of the incident, and they were left in no doubt that there might be some form of sanction taken against them.
Hell, I struggled to fall asleep again after all that drama. I understood the challenges players faced when they were on tour. Although France is a great place, you do not know the language, and it’s hard for some of the guys to get used to the food. In addition, on this tour there were several good players in the group who had not made the starting line-up in the early games and did not get the amount of game time they probably felt they deserved. All of these factors suggested we could be in for some trouble during the rest of the tournament if we didn’t treat the nightclub misdemeanour sensitively.
Boys will be boys, after all, and there hadn’t really been a plane crash. I had this in mind the next morning, and before we’d even had breakfast, we gathered all the boys together for the disciplinary hearing. Even those who had not gone to the disco were made to sit through the proceedings, which just seemed to go on forever. All the guys’ heads were drooping.
As I listened to my fellow management members chastising the players and behaving as if this were the sinking of the Titanic, I kept thinking that I must save the tour; I had to lift the spirits of the boys or they would not retain their hunger to destroy their opponents.
I asked the management and Sarfu representatives to leave the room so I could speak to the team alone. I even asked the assistant coaches to leave too.
After everyone had left, I said to the team, “Guys, you are supposed to be future Springboks. You are supposed to be the cream of South Africa’s rugby future. So how damn stupid are you that you get caught sneaking out to a disco? Surely you are cleverer than that? Surely you should know how to slip out without getting caught?”
I continued in this vein, saying that a Springbok is supposed to be good at everything he does, and that should include being good at sneaking out. I said it was completely unacceptable for a Springbok to get caught.
The relief on their faces spoke volumes and confirmed that I had followed the right approach, but I asked them not to look too satisfied when they left the room. I wanted them to give the impression that I had given them a proper bollocking.
That helped save the tour for us and we didn’t lose another game until the semi-final, where we drew the match and then lost in a penalty shoot-out. I had taken Conrad Jantjes off the field after officials informed me that anyone in the squad of 22 could kick in the shoot-out. But when I wanted to use Conrad for a kick, I was told it wasn’t allowed.
But for the next three years, we were successful in all the tournaments we competed in. We played with the necessary passion and really enjoyed our rugby. I had by then got myself up to speed on the young talent available, and spent a lot of time at youth tournaments assessing the players coming through. I was a rather good talent-spotter, as many of the guys I brought in later went on to play for their country at senior level.
I believe the players liked the way I coached and managed them, and some even told me that should they not make it as professional rugby players, they would make it in life because of the valuable life lessons they had learnt. That was, and is, an important part of my job to me, even when it involves senior international players. There is always room for personal growth, and a player should never have the attitude that rugby is the only thing there is to him as a person. In my view, a strong, well-rounded person makes for a better rugby player, as he is better equipped to deal with the challenges on the field if he can confront those he faces off the field head-on.
In 1998, 1999 and 2000, the under-19 team enjoyed a very successful run, and I had high hopes of being appointed as the national under-21 coach the following year. It seemed like a natural progression. But in 2001 Sarfu appointed Swys de Bruin from Griquas as the coach of the under-21s. I was disappointed. It didn’t seem fair, but when Sammy Paulse and I were appointed as assistant coaches to Swys, my professional instinct told me to work with him to try to help him be successful.
Although Swys was a nice enough guy, he allowed his assistant coaches very little responsibility. He would coach the forwards, and then he would coach the backs. He gave me very little to do, so there was also no accountability. That’s not how I wanted it to be – you didn’t become an assistant coach so that you could go on holiday. So once again I refused to just go with the flow.
This was in an era when Sarfu had taken over the Super 12 franchises and had a big say in the appointment of coaches. Several black coaches had been dispatched to the Super 12 franchises to learn the ropes. I had heard complaints, though, that none of these guys was given a hands-on role to play.
I was working with the Bulls then, but I hadn’t yet had that problem with Phil Pretorius. In the early days he had allowed me to be involved; it was only later that I had problems with him. Some of those other black coaches came to me and complained they weren’t being given any responsibilities, and I told them to stand up for themselves.
And that was what I was determined to do when I felt as if I were being sidelined. Swys and I had a chat, and he agreed that I should take on more responsibilities. He said he would coach the forwards and I the backs.
But when it came to preparing for the IRB tournament, which that year was to be held in Australia, no one ever discussed strategy with either me or Sammy Paulse. Swys would draw up his plans and then bring them to the training field.
So I said to him, “Listen, Swys, you must make up your mind what you want from me. If you don’t want me to be accountable for anything, then I would much rather just stay at home.”
I again asked him to give me more responsibility, with the proviso that if we weren’t successful, I would take the blame for it. He agreed and said he would give me what I wanted, but he nevertheless continued to blow hot and cold. I made it clear to him that I was not going to allow him to do to me what other coaches were doing to their black assistants in the Super 12.
“I don’t want to let my people down,” I said, “because they are depending on me and want me to progress as a coach.”
The team doctor from the Free State, who had been involved with the Cats in the Super 12, chimed in to announce that there had been no coaches sidelined at that franchise. I cut him short.
“Doc,” I said, “I don’t see any sick people around me at the moment. I am fighting for a much bigger cause here. It’s about accountability, but you won’t understand that. Please excuse us, because this issue cuts much deeper than you can see.”
* Politically Incorrect, by Peter de Villiers with Gavin Rich, is published by Zebra Press and is on sale at all good bookstores at a recommended retail price of R220
* Peter de Villiers played for Griquas and Boland in the Saru leagues before retiring to coach his club, Young Gardens, in Paarl. After obtaining a Level 4 Higher Graduate coaching certificate from the Welsh Rugby Union, he quickly progressed through the ranks in Western Cape rugby, coaching the SA under-19 team for three years before leading the SA under-21 team to a Junior World Cup triumph in 2005. He was appointed Springbok coach in 2008. In his four years as Bok coach, De Villiers experienced huge successes – a series win over the British and Irish Lions and a Tri Nations trophy – but he also suffered the ignominy of coming last in the Tri Nations and seeing his World Cup dream shattered by the controversial officiating of referee Bryce Lawrence.
* Gavin Rich has been covering South African rugby for 21 years, having started his career as rugby writer for the Natal Mercury in 1991. He has covered several Springbok tours for various local publications and radio stations, including the Independent Group, Supersport.com and the Weekend Argus, and won the Sasol Springbok Rugby Writer of the Year award in 2010.