The ogres behind De Villiers and previous coaches
PETER DE VILLIERS has taken a lot of flak from the critics, much of it justified, but his answer to a question at the postmatch press conference at Twickenham last week put proper perspective on where the blame for anything that has gone wrong during his tenure as Springbok coach should really lie.
“I don’t know, I don’t care about that, it is not in my hands, I did not appoint myself,” said De Villiers when asked if the 21-11 win over England would be enough to keep him in his position.
If that is really De Villiers’ attitude it is the right one. And if he went on to argue that most of his predecessors in the Bok coaching position were not the ogres they were sometimes made out to be, he would also be spot on.
The real ogres, and the people who should take the blame for South African rugby’s failure post-isolation to dominate the world to the extent they did before, are the administrators who have repeatedly made coaching appointments that defied common sense and which on occasion have even robbed the Springboks of momentum.
And no, that is not just directed at Oregan Hoskins, the SA Rugby Union president, because it’s a problems that’s existed for most of the last 18 years.
Hoskins claimed that he did not even know about the bizarre idea – denied by the South African Rugby Union but there is seldom smoke without fire – to appoint a technical committee to which De Villiers would be answerable.
If the names mentioned were people currently in coaching the idea might even be passable. There can’t be any denying that De Villiers does need help. But, and this said with all due respect to Harry Viljoen, Carel du Plessis and Rudolf Straeuli, who probably didn’t ask to be the subject of media speculation, the names mentioned, other than Rassie Erasmus and Heyneke Meyer, were outrageous.
Two of those coaches, Du Plessis and Viljoen, can be classed as intelligent rugby brains who were possibly undone because of the timing of their appointment, rather than their ability to do the job.
Viljoen was a dynamic, forward thinking coach who steered Transvaal to respectability before guiding Wester n Province to a drought-breaking Currie Cup win in 1997. Had he been appointed to the Bok job in 1997, it might have been an inspired move. He wasn’t – instead he came into the job at the end of 2000 – three years after breaking away from coaching.
Du Plessis was of course the Bok coach for most of 1997. Everyone remembers that because it was the year the Boks lost to the British and Irish Lions. Du Plessis received criticism, but the crime really belonged to Louis Luyt’s administration, who appointed him at a time where his only coaching experience had been a stint at the University of the Western Cape.
Straeuli, who fell prey to the syndrome known as the Madness of the Springbok Coach, which drove a perfectly decent man to behave in a lamentable way under the pressure which comes with the job, is at least currently coaching. He took charge of training the Sharks under-21 team this past season.
Placing those names on a potential Bok technical committee would come across as a joke if it were not for the fact that there is plenty of precedent. For instance, in 2003, when Straeuli resigned/was sacked, the new Saru president Brian van Rooyen drew up a list of four potential replacements that included Andre Markgraaff and Chester Williams.
Markgraaff definitely wasn’t the worst Springbok coach in history, but at the time he had not coached for three years. And Williams’ coaching experience at that stage of his career was limited to Sevens. Van Rooyen made it known he favoured Williams as the head coach, with Markgraaff serving as assistant or in a technical advisory capacity.
The media outcry prompted Markgraaff to withdraw his availability, and after some pressure was applied by former Springbok captain Morne du Plessis in his all too brief stint on the board of SA Rugby, Jake White was eventually included on the list and a proper testing process was introduced. Technically White was way superior to other candidates who did not boast enough coaching experience, and he got the job.
The same tests were held at the end of 2007, when a replacement for White was being sought. It is no secret that De Villiers came last in the technical tests, but was appointed nonetheless for reasons which, Hoskins intimated at a press conference afterwards, transcended rugby.
The fruitless search for rugby coaching heavyweights prepared to work with De Villiers between the end of the Boks’ disastrous Tri-Nations campaign and the beginning of the last tour was an admission on the part of Saru that they had made the wrong appointment. Their subsequent attempts to usher in alternatives that appear less than suitable are symptomatic of the lack of strong leadership of an organisation that just doesn’t have the guts to make a big decision.
Big decisions though have not always been a problem for the SA rugby administration, and in 2000 they jettisoned a coach, Nick Mallett, for saying that he thought the price of Test tickets in South Africa was exorbitant.
That though wasn’t the real reason Mallett was sacked, for his real crime was that he was outspoken about what he saw as the bumbling incompetence of an administration he felt wasn’t qualified to make coaching appointments because of lack of technical rugby knowledge.
A glance through the history of Bok rugby since the end of isolation will suggest he was only stating what should be self-evident, though not even the late Dr Danie Craven, who was still running SA rugby when isolation ended and was a clever rugby man who enjoyed guru status, was exempt from the malaise which has seen more bizarre appointments made in the last 18 years than logical ones.
It was Craven’s regime that appointed the first post-isolation coach, John Williams, who at the time, 1992, hadn’t coached since 1989, with the three-year intervening period seeing marked changes to the way the game was played as Bob Dwyer’s Wallabies introduced the concept of direct rugby.
FUTURE IMPERFECT: Bok coach Peter de Villiers seems set to be at the helm for the 2011 World Cup, but with SA Rugby, anything is possible.