at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Peter de Villiers is in a contemplative mood as he settles back into his comfy leather seat in a lounge dominated by a stuffed leaping springbok.
It’s the eve of the release of his aptly titled memoir, Politically Incorrect. The release has been rushed forward a week after an Afrikaans Sunday tabloid illicitly obtained a copy and splashed the plums of the revelations all over its front page.
De Villiers isn’t fazed. He’s quietly excited about the book and proud of what it represents. By the end of the interview, though, he’ll be up out of his chair dancing about on the balls of his feet, bobbing and weaving as if he’s shadowboxing, as the roller coaster emotions of his four-year tenure at the Springboks boil over.
“I never wanted to write a book,” he confides. “When we were in France, some of the local journalists came up to me, saying, ‘We don’t know anything about you, who are you?’.”
What particularly vexed him was the insinuation that, as the country’s first “black” Bok coach, he knew nothing about the game, and had no player pedigree worth the name.
“This book’s not just about me, take out my name and it’s about plenty of others like me who have been playing the game for well over 100 years.”
De Villiers never played for Saru, the coloured rugby union during apartheid, but he was invited to the trials. A nuggety scrumhalf for Griquas and Boland, he turned to coaching after his playing days were over, becoming internationally qualified as a rugby coach, leading the SA under-19 sides for three years before taking the SA under-21 team to a junior rugby World Cup triumph in 2005.
He was always a handful though, banging heads with administrators and fellow coaches, refusing to be a token. It’s something that continues to this day.
Despite being paid off at the end of his contract with the Boks – with a letter thanking him for his role in nation building – De Villiers says he is still prepared to return in any capacity should he be required.
“They can ask me, but they must do it for the right reasons. If I can add value, I will, but I’m not going to just occupy an office.”
It’s the same attitude that saw him leaving the Bulls, where he had been assistant coach, the same reason why he clashed with the then coach of the SA u-21s and ultimately the reason why he returned to Paarl with nothing, having to sell his paid-up home there and lose his car after quitting as coach of the Falcons.
He hasn’t turned his back on rugby completely, as he explains in one of his inimitable aphorisms; “One thing we learn in life is don’t try to open doors that are closed, play the cards that are dealt to you.”
Today, he’s going around speaking to anyone who will listen, from school groups to communities, on the need for people to live up to their potential. His mission is to uplift people, not just in his own street in Paarl, but across the country.
“I’ll go wherever the people need me,” he says.
His message is a mix of his publicly and frequently avowed Christian faith and his experience coaching rugby players, not just the Boks.
“I didn’t want to be like Jake White or Nick Mallett (former Bok coaches), I wanted to be the best possible Peter de Villiers. As soon as you start to compete to be like others you’re losing the plot.”
He tried to instil the same values in the country’s top players.
“Life is greater than rugby. Take Morne (Steyn), when he kicked that winning penalty (which won the 2009 British and Iron Lions series for SA), if he had had no one to share it with, it would have meant nothing. He was a hero to the country, but most importantly, he was a hero to his wife.”
De Villiers, though, readily admits that what’s on the scoreboard does make a difference, after being publicly castigated for saying the opposite during his tenure.
“I never lost sight of the fact that we had to win Tests, but you lose yourself when it becomes the alpha and omega and that’s fatal for a coach, because you lose the loyalty of the players when you’re not tapping into their natural talent.”
De Villiers has always prided himself on the relationship he enjoyed with his players, something that set him on an immediate collision course with one of his erstwhile backers, Cheeky Watson, who wanted captain John Smit out and replaced by his son Luke. Instead, De Villiers appointed Smit, with Victor Matfield as his deputy.
The loyalty was rewarded throughout his tenure as Bok coach. Smit turned in a foreword for the book “in less than 24 hours”, with Matfield providing a quote for the front cover. Both would defend their coach, his mangled metaphors at press conferences and his tactics on the field throughout his tenure. Other players did the same.
It’s testimony to De Villiers’s claim that players make the coach, not the other way round.
“Some people use players to engrave their names on a silver plate; it was more important to me to engrave my name in their hearts,” he says.
Some players, though, did slip beneath De Villiers’s net, like Ruan Pienaar, Enrico (Ricky) Januarie, Earl Rose and Adi Jacobs, who he wishes today that he had been given more time to work with to develop their talent and make them legendary Springboks rather than often no more than bit-part actors in the saga.
He’s angry, too, that SA rugby authorities have not grasped the opportunity to capitalise on the wealth of experience and knowledge represented by the country’s three Bok centurions, Smit, Matfield and Percy Montgomery.
“Look at (Australian Super 15 side) the Brumbies. (Wallaby greats) (George) Gregan and (Stephen) Larkin are back investing what they have learnt into the franchise and into Australian rugby.”
But that’s not all that SA rugby bosses are missing. There’s no room for former coaches either.
“You go to Ireland and come up against Gert Smal, who knows all our tactics and calls, go to Italy and come up against Mallett. Play Super 15 rugby and come up against White at the Brumbies. They’re beating everyone and yet here at home we have two foreign coaches in our Super Rugby set up, because we’re not developing our own.”
De Villiers believes SA rugby should set up a national think tank into which all the great coaches can be drawn and from where they can go out and inculcate a single vision of excellence for the game at all levels.
He’s not surprised though that SA rugby isn’t that warm to the idea. He fought an uphill battle with SA rugby boss Oregan Hoskins which he recounts in his book, from the time Hoskins damned him by announcing that his appointment was political rather than on merit. He also learnt – via TV – that Hoskins had been negotiating with Heynecke Meyer six months before De Villiers took the team to the World Cup.
It wasn’t the first time De Villiers had been underestimated. Watson was perhaps the first, closely followed by ANC MP Cedric Frolick, former sports portfolio chairman Butana Komphela, the Soweto Rugby Club’s Dr Asad Bhorat and Mike Stofile.
“I wouldn’t be anyone’s puppet,” he says, out of his chair and up on his toes.
“I’m ugly, I’m black, but I’m not stupid.
“This is the real book, this tells everyone about the real Peter de Villiers, not the rubbish people wanted me to be.” – The Star