Cape Town – Eight days ago the Springboks’ first Rugby Championship under the coaching of Heyneke Meyer came to a disappointing end with defeat at Nasrec, and it was a year ago this week that the tenure of Meyer’s predecessor, Peter de Villiers, was ended in Wellington, New Zealand.
The latter event was of course a calamitous one for South African fans, particularly as the unfathomable refereeing of Bryce Lawrence had played such a pivotal role in the Bok exit in that World Cup quarter-final.
Perhaps that played a role in the hero’s welcome the squad received on their return to South Africa, but after spending time with De Villiers this year, I am willing to wager that there was another factor at work.
Travelling the country with De Villiers to promote Politically Incorrect – the Autobiography, which I co-authored with him, the one thing that kept confounding me was how popular he was with people from all walks of South African life.
I have spent some time with other Bok coaches, but none of them were ever mobbed when we were trying to get an interview in over coffee like De Villiers was. Car guards in Port Elizabeth, Indian waiters in Umhlanga Rocks, newspaper vendors at busy intersections, mothers walking prams down congested pavements – all of them climbed all over Div like they might be related to him and he’d been away for three years.
That was during the writing and interviewing process. During the promotion tour it became much worse, though sometimes to our benefit, for officious security guards who weren’t prepared to let us gain access into the businesses we were visiting when they saw my pale face peering out at them quickly changed once I showed them who was sitting next to me.
“Ah, Meester Da Villiers, Meester Dah Villiers…” they would say, all beaming smiles as they reached into the car to shake his hand before scuttling off to lift the boom without even so much as asking us to sign the register. Then inside the building the daily business would come to a halt as everyone from the janitor to the CEO would ask for an autograph and a photo with the now ex-Bok coach.
If they weren’t calling him Meester Da Villiers they were calling him “Coach”, and everywhere he went he gave the impression he cared deeply for every person he came across who showed any kind of interest.
That kind of popularity across the population groups and other cross sections of our multi-cultural society is going to be hard for any other coach to emulate, and it is a failing of the current Bok coach.
When De Villiers recently publicly warned Meyer about the folly of making black people feel they were excluded from the Bok team I understood what he was saying but most of my media colleagues and much of the public didn’t.
During the interview process I built up around 30 hours of tapes of De Villiers talking, and because I wanted to completely understand what he was saying, I transcribed every one of those tapes myself rather than do what other authors do by hiring a student to do it for me.
“Demystifying Div” could easily have been an alternative title for the book, for he was misunderstood, but during the transcription and interview process I feel I succeeded in my objective of getting inside his mind.
So while he was interpreted as saying that Meyer must select more black players, which was widely interpreted as hypocritical, I knew that what De Villiers was really talking about was making the team seem more accessible to everyone.
And that, if you recall the masses that turned up at Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton last September to wave the Boks off, and then again when the defeated Boks returned to OR Tambo Airport, is something that De Villiers undeniably did succeed in doing.
If you do read the book – I have discovered that many people who haven’t still have opinions on it just because it is Peter de Villiers – you will note the care he took when pulling together his management team that everyone was represented, and it was a similar motive that guided his decision to bring back John Smit and Victor Matfield. He felt that selecting just one of them might alienate potential factions of Bok supporters.
To an overseas reader this might all seem like a lot of hoopla, but it’s a reality that South Africa is a unique country in the rugby world, and political and cultural sensitivity is as important to a Springbok coach as tactical and strategic nous.
If Meyer doesn’t quickly grasp this, and start finding a way to make everyone feel included rather than excluded, South African rugby is going to reverse the one big forward step that was taken during the De Villiers era. – Weekend Argus