De Villiers: In control or in too deep?
Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 17 August 2008
De Villiers: In control or in too deep? - Rugby news & coverage -

Some people say he's a clown while others reckon he's colourful. Toby Robson profiles South African coach Peter de Villiers and discovers a man in charge.

Arms gesticulating, his moustache bouncing on his upper lip, the former halfback moves from player to player, often jogging, always talking, always watching.

If de Villiers is a puppet, as former All Blacks prop Craig Dowd infamously labelled the Springbok coach in July, then whoever's holding the strings is busy.

The scene is de Villiers' old club, Tygerberg, where he coached in 1996-97 in the coloured area of Ravensmead, 40 minutes drive from Cape Town's CBD.

It's Tuesday, test week before the Tri Nations game against the All Blacks at Newlands and my white Afrikaans taxi driver has no idea where we are going.

We're late by the time we get directions and the Boks are well into their work. My mission is to observe de Villiers in action, try to get a gauge on whether the 51-year-old is in control of his team, or a political appointment to appease the coloured quota.

The noise of the screaming locals means there's no chance of hearing what de Villiers is saying, but his entire squad has surrounded him and are intently listening to his message.

They're either good actors or they are listening. Lock Victor Matfield steps in when de Villiers is finished and appears to expand on his point.

His coach nods in approval, barks some instructions and they are back into it.

Sharks coach Dick Muir is the man rumoured to really be in control and he's certainly hands-on. Young, blond and in full Springbok tracksuit it would be easy to mistake Muir for a player. He joins the defensive line and makes up the numbers alongside his men, coaching as he goes.

De Villiers looks on from the sideline, where he is talking again, this time to his other assistant coach, Gary Gold. The forwards are doing lineouts with Matfield appearing to run the cutter.

It all seems pretty normal. Is this any different to the All Blacks set-up where Graham Henry is in charge of defence, Wayne Smith takes the backs, Mick Byrne the kickers and Steve Hansen and Mike Cron the forwards.

Is Henry a puppet because he spends half of training intently watching from afar?

Sydney Morning Herald rugby writer Greg Growden's recent column springs into my mind as I watch South Africa's first coloured coach call a halt, bark some instructions and then clap his hands to gee his players back into action.

Growden ridiculed de Villiers' reaction to Dowd's comments and observed that Muir did all the talking in the coach's box during tests.

Harsh criticism for a guy who coached the world cup-winning South African under-21 side in 2005, and who has won five out of seven tests since taking over from Jake White inJanuary.

A couple of weeks back, de Villiers became the first South African coach since Nick Mallet in 1998 to win on New Zealand soil.

Growden is right that de Villiers' comments are sometimes comical, often difficult to interpret, but are elements of the South African media twisting them to suit? A day after the training I've attended he is quoted by an Afrikaans paper as saying the All Blacks are cheats at lineout and scrum time.

Even the All Blacks coaching staff are starting to wonder what's going on.

"I just wonder whether some of the quotes that Peter makes are actually truthful, whether he has actually made those statements," Henry said. "I'd like him to make them [the quotes] to me, before I know they are truthful, before I make any comment about them."

It's starting to wear thin with Henry's assistant Wayne Smith, too, and he has sent a subtle message via the media that it's a tad disrespectful to constantly talk down to your opponents.

By the end of the week de Villiers has been labelled a racist by Cedrick Frolick, the vice-chairperson of the parliamentary sport portfolio committee.

Picking Fourie Du Preez and Percy Montgomery ahead of Ricky Januarie and Conrad Jantjes is unpalatable to a large sector of the population.

"Boks coach hammered for whitening team" cries the headline. There are four black players in the starting XV wings JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana, centre Adrian Jacobs and prop Tendai Mtawarira.

In his first year of a two-year contract, de Villiers is an easy target. As one fan pointed out "Jake White won the world cup, so what sort of act is that to follow? How's he going to do any better in the eyes of the fans?"

But what sort of a personality is de Villiers?

I asked du Preez if he was enjoying playing under his new coach.

"I've only just come into the squad, but it's not really too different to what I'm used to," he said. "It's been going quite well. I've only been a week and a half with the squad, so it's different to last year, but it's been nice.

"I've only played 30 minutes [under de Villiers] against Argentina, so it's difficult to say, but it's not too much different to what I've been used to in the last two or three years."

Du Preez is hardly going to bag him a day after his test re-call, but that in itself says something about the coach.

Despite his apparent responsibilities to transformation, de Villiers has said he will pick the best team, regardless of colour. So far he has.

A respected rugby journalist told me he didn't know whether de Villiers was a good coach or not, but said those who know him say he is arrogant.

It doesn't fit with the devoutly religious Christian he appears to be.

But is a touch of arrogance such a bad thing? If you can't stick up for yourself in South Africa you may as well give up.