Peter the pioneer: At the helm of the Springboks

South Africa's first black coach is quickly making a name for himself as an unpredictable leader who is not afraid to do it his way, writes James Corrigan
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The Independent Online

If there is any truth whatsoever in "a team being cast in the image of their coach", then England should not be bothering with any video analysis in preparation for tomorrow's confrontation with South Africa. An audience with Peter de Villiers is not what one would term "a predictable experience". Indeed, for the uninitiated there is the danger of being bamboozled to the point of inertia.

There was a palpable sense of anticipation in a side room of the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington yesterday before the world champions finally revealed their injury-hit side to restage the Webb Ellis Cup final of a year ago. Yet it was not the identity of the emergency tight-head raising the pulses, but what on earth De Villiers was going to say next. He did not disappoint.

The routine started slowly but then built and built and by the end he was announcing that "South Africans are taking over England" and mixing up "Cipriani" with "Capriati". Granted, this was only a mere snapshot of the man, the coach, the pioneer, but it was still one that led you to regard the recent description of him by Sports Illustrated South Africa as spot on – "De Villiers is a riddle, framed with a moustache, and wrapped in green and gold tracksuit."

In the 10 months in which the 51-year-old has led South Africa as the nation's first black coach, he has proved only one thing – that with him at the helm Springbok rugby will never be boring. Unsatisfactory maybe; controversial, almost certainly; different, irrefutably. But when it comes to tedium, De Villiers gives it as wide a berth as Bryan Habana might a Danny Grewcock on a Saturday afternoon.

The wildly up-and-down results have been one aspect of his tenure (yes, very probably the only aspect for that country obsessed with outcomes). From the highs of winning for the first time in Dunedin, to the lows of finishing bottom in the Tri-Nations. If Jake White had instilled a measure of cherished consistency, then, in the eyes of the vilifiers, his successor – perhaps trying to distil it – has destroyed it in the crudest of fermenting processes. They accuse De Villiers, the one they call "The Clown", of taking away the structure and, in the process, taking away the essential nature of South African rugby. In footballing terms they see him as committing the inexcusable error of trying to make Germany play like Brazil. Instead they play like Portugal. World-beaters one week, eaten by Wallabies the very next.

To be fair to De Villiers, the grumbles had started before he had even had chance to throw away a clipboard. When the board of the South African Rugby Union voted by 10 to nine to choose De Villiers over Heyneke Meyer – now of Leicester – there were howls of anguish and worse. In unveiling the new man, the president of Saru, Oregon Hoskins, said he wanted "to be honest with South Africans", but in De Villiers's interests, he was probably way too honest. "The appointment did not take into account only rugby reasons," said Hoskins. "We took into account the issue of transformation in rugby very, very seriously."

Cue cynicism, exasperation, foreboding and a reaction in certain, blessedly ever-shrinking, quarters that was all too inevitable. Purely from a rugby perspective, De Villiers, a scrum-half whose ambition was quashed like so many by apartheid, might not have been as well-qualified as the Super 14 maestro Meyer, but still had a track record at the very least comparable with that of White, having coached through the age groups right up to the Emerging Springboks. Furthermore he pleaded "that the fact that I'm the first black coach must end now". Some hope.

While it is impossible to ascertain which criticisms were rooted in discrimination – if any – De Villiers himself condemned, in the bitterest terms, the controversy known simply in his country as "the sex tape" (about which, the less said the better). He labelled the whispers of its emergence "a racial plot" and concluded that he might even be better off "giving the job back to the whites". Later, the said tape was dismissed as a hoax, but only after allegations erupted of blackmail within the camp. There was little wonder that De Villiers chose to vent his anger following the startling 53-8 defeat of Australia which closed their topsy-turvy campaign.

Except it was how the son of the Western Cape articulated this fury that would have intrigued everyone detached from the intricacies of the raging Springbok machine and the complexities of its nation. He evoked images of Jesus and so the legend of the De Villiers quote grew ever larger. Perhaps it was a relief that the focus would not fall on the colour of his skin but suddenly on the colour of his language and it all certainly served to make him seem a much more multifarious sporting leader.

Some continued to refer to him as the pawn of authorities increasingly desperate to implement the labour laws, which requires businesses to employ a percentage of non-whites, into the rugby set-up, but whatever the legitimacy of that argument it surely cannot be denied that De Villiers speaks like a bishop. A bungling one maybe, but still one who draws on the highest example for his analogies.

Alas there was none of that glorious overstatement yesterday, in the five star overlooking Hyde Park, but there were still a few pearls buried amid the clichés. Take this when asked whether he was feeling tired after his tumultuous year. "What me? No, no, no. This is a great city and I don't want to be fatigued looking around at all your great heritage. No, no, no, there's no time to be fatigued. You get one life, you must live it to the full. It's going to be your own fault, young man, if you miss something great in life."

A little later he was asked about the chances of calling up a prop who plays in the Guinness Premiership. "There are South Africans playing well everywhere over here," he said. "It goes on and on. South Africans are taking over England and that's a worrying factor for the Englishman."

There was one deeply embarrassing note struck when he responded to a query about the channel between England's outside-half and inside-centre that Australia exploited last week. "It won't be bad this Saturday," he assured us. "We know [Riki] Flutey as we played against him a lot in the Super 14. And we all know Capriati is not a bad player." Yes, we do, but we also can tell Danny apart from Jennifer.

All grist to the mill, all ammunition in the hands of his detractors, however irrelevant. And although his rugby philosophy sounded straightforward enough, it all soon descended into fatalistic incomprehension. "My style is to empower the players. I believe in my players, trust them and I just hope that on the day the ball bounces for then," he said. "You know you don't have any control over winning and losing, but you can control how you play the game."

Fortunately he was not asked about the race issue, or indeed what defeat tomorrow would do for his standing at home. In reality, the majority in South Africa are probably expecting the worst after this of all years and after the two close shaves against Scotland and Wales. If De Villiers is to be judged fairly then it will be against the Lions next year and if his recent proclamations are anything to go by that is probably all he asks.

"I'm a man in my own right," he said. "If they appointed me for rugby coaching they appointed the right person. When I walk away from this job I want to say one thing: 'I did it my way.'"

De Villiers: The wit and wisdom

On the result "There's little difference between winning and losing, except you feel better after winning."

On rugby "I know dancing is also a contact sport, but rugby is far from dancing. If you want to run with the big dogs then sometimes you have to lift your leg."

On inspiring players (1) "What we try to tell them is when you point your finger into the sky, don't concentrate on the finger because you'll miss all the heavenly glory out there. Concentrate on the heavenly glory you can bring and make yourselves so fulfilled."

On inspiring players (2) "I'll tell them talk is cheap and money buys whisky."

On celebrating and commiserating "South Africans are normally great people and we'll take the bitter with the sweet. It's only the guys who don't feel part of that bitter or that sweet that will always moan and groan and say: 'Why do they go so wild?' Join in, we've got enough stuff to share with you."

On being patient "We never said it was going to be a perfect world. If you look at the Bible, Joseph started out in the pit and ended up in the palace. There was a lot of cack in between."

On his critics (1) "The same people who threw their robes on the ground when Jesus rode on a donkey were the same people who crowned him and hit him with sticks and stuff like that, and were the same people who said afterwards how we shouldn't have done that, he's the son of God. So that's exactly what we do. You have to look at history as repeating itself. And I'm not saying that I'm God."

On his critics (2) "If you want to be negative, be negative in your own back yard. Why take other people with you? If you want to jump off a bridge, do it alone! Why take other people with you? And that's what we are doing, saying negative things about people who don't deserve it. I'm not saying I don't deserve it. Maybe I do."

On players "Rugby players are very selfish people. They don't have any feeling. They just look after themselves and their interests. But what if you find the person and you know what makes him tick and laugh and cry and happy, and you can add to that, you'll get the best out of them. And I think if you look at the spirit in the team that we have at the moment, that's exactly what we've got right."

On human nature "You can't rely on people to take you anywhere in life. Today they'll smile with you and tomorrow they'll still smile with you, but they'll bite you in the back. The only thing that won't change is the smile."

On leading "I can spend three or four minutes with any person and I'll know who he is and what he's about and if he's there for the right cause or for his own agenda... I'm blessed. I am a born leader."

On reporters "They don't know what role they can play to make this country the best in the world. If you spread a positive message to the people, you can make them positive. We talk about murderers and gangsters. Our biggest gang is newspaper reporters. They spread lies and murder people without knowing it by making them say: 'Right, we just have to do drugs now because there's nothing left in this country for us'."

On staying still "The world is round, and you won't be on top all the time. A lot of people think that where they are now is where they should still be in 10 years' time. So they don't move with the way the world is moving. They turn away from the sun. And when they're in the dark, everybody who doesn't see them will forget about them."

On mind games "Later in the week I might pull a rat out of the hat."

On losing "We played cack."