Professional sport has produced its fair share of comic turns, from masters of the waspish one-liner to natural clowns in the grand tradition of the Big Top, but it has not previously come up with anyone quite like Peter de Villiers – a barely imaginable mix of Eric Cantona and Jose Mourinho, with a liberal pinch of Alan Partridge thrown in for good measure. Yesterday, the head coach of the Springboks reacted to the banning of two of his players for violent excesses against the British and Irish Lions by suggesting that anyone having a problem with rugby as a contact sport should visit the nearest "ballet shop" and buy a tutu.
He also treated his audience to a little poetry, although T S Eliot's reputation will probably survive the challenge. "I know what I am and I don't care a damn," he said, responding in rhyming couplet to those in the South African media who describe him as the weakest link in the Springbok chain. "I'm a God-given talent," he pronounced. "If I'm the weakest link, then we are bloody strong."
It was, to say the very least, an extraordinary address, and under the circumstances, it was probably as well that the Lions were away on an up-country safari and well out of earshot. The tourists were understandably outraged by Schalk Burger's assault on Luke Fitzgerald in the opening seconds of Saturday's bloody Test in Pretoria – the Springbok flanker was spotted clawing Fitzgerald around the eyes at a ruck – and none too impressed by De Villiers' immediate statement that the offence was not worthy of the yellow card Burger received as a punishment, let alone the outright dismissal demanded by the overwhelming majority of those who witnessed the incident.
Late on Sunday night, Burger was banned for eight weeks. A second Springbok forward, Bakkies Botha, was also suspended, this time for a fortnight as a result of the dangerous challenge that left the Lions prop Adam Jones nursing a badly dislocated shoulder. De Villiers' reaction to the suspensions was fiercely defensive, if not always logically coherent.
"I'm against anything that is not in the spirit of the game," he said when asked if he might like to condemn the act of gouging. "We in South Africa will not go to the lows of being negative in a game as positive as ours and I would never encourage anybody to perpetrate an act that belongs in the bushveld and brings the game into disrepute. But Schalk is an honourable man. If you knew Schalk as I know him, you would understand that he is too physical to go to those means to show who is boss on the field. We don't think he did this. I've watched the television footage and I am still convinced there was nothing done on purpose.
"Gouging, biting, spear-tackling – these things don't belong in rugby. We want to promote this game to our youth, to make it the biggest nation-building tool there can ever be. But we must understand very, very clearly that rugby is a contact sport. If we are going to have games decided in the boardroom and in front of television cameras, let's ask ourselves if we really respect this game. Do we want to be a part of it, or do we want to go to the nearest ballet shop, get some nice tutus and get some dancing going on? There will be no eye-gouging, no tackling, no nothing. And then you'll enjoy it.
"There will always be collisions in rugby. Why don't we cite a guy when he jumps into another guy's face? The reason we don't is this game of rugby. If we are going to make rugby soft because South Africa won a Test series and people don't like it, there's nothing I can do."
Without drawing breath, De Villiers adopted his triumphalist tone. "For 29 years, we in South Africa have waited for this and we're happy. This country can celebrate. It was the hardest Test series I've seen in a while and I think people should take it on the chin and say, 'Well done, South Africa'. But no one has congratulated us up until now, Maybe they will do so after the third Test."
And then, there was one last pearl of wisdom. "Nelson Mandela and F W De Klerk were given the Nobel Peace Prize, and whatever they'd did wrong in their lives, no one can take that prize away. Whatever happens here, no one can take this victory away from us."
For the record, the Kwazulu-Natal lock Johann Muller has been called into the South African squad as a replacement for Andries Bekker, who tore a knee cartilage at the weekend. All of which seems a trifle dull, compared with the thoughts and reflections of Mr De Villiers.Reuse content