Sport Autumn Internationals

Saturday 24 March 2018

De Villiers needs to pull ‘rat out of hat’

Unsuccessful tour could spell end for embattled coach

Peter de Villiers. Photo: Reuters
Peter de Villiers. Photo: Reuters
David Kelly

David Kelly

Even when he's winning, it seems like he's losing.

As South Africa's permanently embattled coach Peter de Villiers pitches up in Dublin today, it brings to mind the old line from Tommie Smith during the build-up to his emotional Mexico Olympics podium protest.

"If I do something good, then I'm an American, but if I do something bad then I am a Negro," Tommie said.

Ever since 53-year-old De Villiers was charged with leading South Africa's rugby fortunes nearly three years ago, his reign has been viewed largely through the prism of his country's thinly veiled difficulties in adjusting to life beyond apartheid.

Victories are achieved seemingly in spite of him; last year's Tri Nations and Lions successes were seemingly appropriated by his captain and coaching staff. In defeat, he is isolated, if not pilloried.

In mitigation, it has often been difficult to excuse De Villiers. His crass comments and confrontational attitude invite little sympathy.

But, in a land where reverse discrimination -- 'transformation' is the buzzword -- renders much criticism a lightning rod for old racist arguments to explode, the debate is too often shrouded in confusion.

You might assume it is rarely black and white. But the origins of De Villiers' reign are nothing if not exactly that. For politics and race inextricably linked themselves to De Villiers on the day his appointment was announced in January 2008.

He may be a rugby pioneer; sadly the volunteer's successful candidacy to replace World Cup winner Jake White was almost immediately supplanted by the ulterior motives of others.

Although Heyneke Meyer received the endorsement from 77pc of the international and provincial playing base, De Villiers became the country's first ever black coach thanks to a narrow 10-9 margin at South African Rugby Union (SARU) board level.

Oregon Hoskins, the SARU president, promptly placed upon his shoulders a burdensome bridle. "I must be honest with South Africans," Hoskins admitted. "The appointment did not take into account only rugby reasons."

Ironically, it is almost forgotten now that De Villiers' rugby credentials aren't as laughable as his subsequent pronouncements. A scrum-half whose ambition was thwarted, like so others, by the scourge of apartheid, he coached through the age groups right up to the Emerging Springboks.

However, his plea that all ignore "the fact I'm the first black coach" would inevitably fall on deaf hours, with former player Corne Krige despairing and Kiwi Craig Dowd labelling him a "puppet".


South African rugby and race continue to be uncomfortable bedfellows post-apartheid: White was pilloried for only selecting two blacks in his 2007 Rugby World Cup-winning side.

Just six months into the job, an extraordinary sex scandal erupted which was dubbed a racial plot by De Villiers -- a former Springbok media manager told the coach to drop a certain player to prevent the release of a mythical sex tape.

The incident was later dismissed as a hoax, but then a South African newspaper reported that at a meeting of high-ranking officials, one called De Villiers "an ape who did not know what he was doing".

That also proved to be false and De Villiers' agitated response that he should "give the job back to the whites" indicated his level of distress, albeit he later apologised for the remarks. "I knew there were still people who do not want a black coach, I just never knew the extent people would go to discredit me."

To his credit, he secured the final say over team selection before signing his initial contract as head coach and, even if his utterances sometimes veer into GUBU-land, he has rarely been a hostage, it would appear from the outside at least, to the excessive perversities demanded by proponents of reverse discrimination.

Last year in Dublin, he gave an Irish audience an insight into his more reserved thoughts.

"You can't separate life from rugby, we all know that," he said before his side's 15-10 defeat in Croke Park this time 12 months ago. "For us, we respect those things. We never had that in our country, we didn't have to fight so hard to be recognised in the world.

"We like to bring the hope to our country. And we saw what a great tool rugby is to build our country off the field too. So we have an obligation and a responsibility towards our people to make them have a better life.

"That's why we play this game. We will never prepare in any game not to win. We have focused on every game we've played this year. We're a proud nation. Sometimes you miss the point when you see us."

On the field, his team's fortunes have also wildly varied, from completing 2009 unbeaten against the All Blacks and success in last summer's thrilling Lions series to this year's remarkable decline.

They lost five of six Tri Nations matches, conceding a record 22 tries, while De Villiers' cack-handed attempts to enhance his coaching staff, and the now obligatory off-field storm -- he defended Bulls prop Bees Roux "100pc" after he was charged with the murder of a black policeman -- have all left his rear end perilously close to the bacon slicer.

He survived the post-Tri Nations review, but those close to the camp say that his side must win at least three of their four matches this month to consolidate his position. With so many players injured, it is an uphill task.

A passenger in victory, a cause in defeat, never has he needed a win more. As De Villiers himself might -- and indeed did -- say once, "it's time to pull a rat out of the hat".

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport