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Peter de Villiers was smeared, his family put under intolerable political pressure and his one-time closest friends became arch foes, but he doesn’t regret a moment he spent coaching the Springboks.
He would even go through all the agony of last year’s Rugby World Cup – although he still wonders if international bookmakers cost his team their quest to win the cup a historic third time.
There is one thing he would not do again, however: as a married man and a father, he would not take the job. “I’m tough, but my family suffered more,” he said in an exclusive interview on the eve of the launch of his biography Politically Incorrect.
In the book he questions why the International Rugby Board privately thanked him and the team management for not retaliating after Welsh referee Nigel Owens’s woeful refereeing in the Springbok-Samoa game, yet rewarded Owens with a quarterfinal match instead of censuring him.
De Villiers also alleges that Bryce Lawrence, the referee South African fans believe cost the Boks the quarterfinal, made an unprecedented 47 refereeing errors instead of his customary six a game.
The coach had to fight many battles before the World Cup, starting with the now-infamous sex tape.
In his book De Villiers says he was told that ANC MP Cedric Frolick and anti-apartheid activist and Eastern Province rugby boss Cheeky Watson had been behind the sex-tape smear that almost derailed his Bok coaching career virtually before it had begun.
“I don’t know who was behind it or why,” he said, admitting that the questions haunt him today.
No such tape has seen the light of day, and De Villiers has denied any involvement.
He partly blames himself for the breakdown in the relationship of a man who, with Frolick, former ANC sports portfolio chairman Butana Khompela and Soweto rugby club’s Dr Asad Bhorat and Mike Stofile, were once his greatest supporters for the top SA rugby job.
“Cheeky didn’t expect me to be so strong,” he said of his decision to stick with Bok captain John Smit and not appoint Watson’s son, Luke, as captain.
“Maybe I created expectations in Cheeky Watson. Like most South African fathers he couldn’t take a step back from his child’s sport. Luke is an outstanding player and captain, but he never lived up to my expectations, John was by far the better leader, on and off the field.”
Khompela, too, would turn on De Villiers, demanding that SA Rugby chief Oregan Hoskins fire him. This was after De Villiers’s elderly father had a run-in with an ANC candidate in Paarl during last year’s local government elections and De Villiers’s daughter was seen speaking to a friend at a DA table on election day.
Hoskins, the biography claims, did not stand by his man either, starting with his announcement that De Villiers’s appointment was not based solely on merit, but on political considerations too.
“Six months before we went to the Rugby World Cup, he was already negotiating with Heyneke Meyer to replace me… I learnt that from TV – he didn’t have the decency to tell me to my face. I’m not bitter, but that’s not the right way to do things.
“You ask the question, this is a multibillion-rand industry, are the right people managing it?”
De Villiers said, the Kings, the controversial sixth team trying to muscle its way into the Super Rugby competition, was illustrative of the broader malaise. Led by Watson, they are the descendants of the Spears which De Villiers started with four players and no budget in 2004.
“Then they said we were costing them too much money, so they shut us down. Now we’ve got a franchise in a format there’s no room for, into which they are pumping millions.”
The Eastern Cape needs rugby to be developed, since 60 percent of all South Africa’s black players come from the region, but the Kings isn’t the answer, he said.
“If you want to develop talent let it run its natural course, not by buying in players from elsewhere. If they gave black players the chance they’d be the best they could be.”
The political imposition of the Kings into Super 15 rugby could irreparably harm the game in SA, he said. “We don’t have enough (quality) players to justify it.”
The team’s inability to be competitive would make them the laughing stock, he said.
Although SA Rugby has turned its back on De Villiers, he hasn’t given up on the game. “To coach the Boks is the pinnacle of a coach’s career. Our duty is to support Heyneke.”