Peter de Villiers: 'The colour of my skin caused bad moments'

South Africa's first black coach tackles his first big Test today. Peter de Villiers tells Peter Bills how a difficult past has fired his vision for the world champions' future
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The Independent Online

South Africa's world champion rugby players, who face Wales in the first Test today, are spoon-fed and scared of making decisions. They have never had to decide on a thing in their rugby lives and they will not take the blame for anything.

In the context of South African rugby, these would be explosive words at the best of times. When they come from the national team's first black coach, their use is akin to carelessly mixing petrol and matches. But then, when you have endured the worst that the old government's apartheid system could throw at you, taking on a bunch of rugby players, even if they are world champions, must seem like pretty small beer.

We can acknowledge one quality within Peter de Villiers, the new South Africa coach, before his Springboks have kicked a ball in anger. That is courage – De Villiers has bucketloads of it, and he has needed it to get this far.

He squeezed into the job by one vote after a selection process which was stained by whispers of shady dealings and threats and outrageous slurs against this thoroughly decent, honourable man. Not that any of that would have bothered him.

"I knew people didn't want me because I was black," he said. "But then I thought, if they want me to be 10 times better than I am, I have to be that. And I was determined that I would be because I have got this dream, I am going to live the dream and fulfil it."

So is De Villiers intimidated by one of the toughest jobs in sport, now he has it? "No," he said, "because of my strong character. That is because of all the hardship in my life I already went through. I am the kind of guy who has been built up by circumstances. There were times when I thought I wasn't part of rugby any more. I felt people didn't want me, people had forgotten about me. Despite my record, people weren't interested in me.

"The colour of my skin caused some bad moments in my life but also good moments too. The truth is, I would never be where I am now but for the colour of my skin. By that, I mean I used that to get where I am."

Professional South African rugby players live in a private and cosseted world, in surroundings built for them by Jake White, the coach who won the 2007 World Cup in France. De Villiers is determined to change all that.

He admits that he has found most of the top Springboks to be so hide-bound and conservative in their attitude to the game that they are scared to make decisions, fearing that to do so represents an alien process, given the way the previous regime worked. De Villiers thinks that it could take most of the remainder of the year to get his Springboks playing the way he wants – in short, to get them playing with greater personal responsibility.

He said: "I am not very happy in terms of where we want them to be at this moment. The players have worked pretty well but the fact is, they were so spoon-fed ... by the previous regime ... that now we are asking them to think a bit, it is a culture shock for them.

"They are scared to make decisions because they have been so spoilt. Everything was there, they didn't have to decide on anything. They didn't take the blame for anything and that's the hardest part."

De Villiers insists that the Springboks expand their game from the cautious, tight approach that was seen at the World Cup, however successful that was in the end. To do that, the players must take on far greater responsibility, making decisions and being responsible for them.

How much better can the Boks be if they adopt this new creed? De Villiers' response is fascinating.

"Let's be clear," he said, "they are all very good players but they are not the best they can be at the moment. This is what we are trying to do, to improve them. But they have to change their mindset. They are talented people but they definitely have to take more responsibility. In percentage terms, I believe we can get another 40 per cent out of these guys.

"For instance, [the wing] Bryan Habana touched the ball only once in the World Cup final. Imagine what he might do with much more possession and far greater opportunities to make his own decisions.

"We will push them very very hard to get there, to that extra 40 per cent. But add that amount to what they already have and you can see the potential of these players and this squad. If they are able to do these new things, then this will be a side that will really go places. But this could take up to six months."

De Villiers spoke of the luxury cars the players drive, the plush homes they have bought with the salaries they have earned. None of which he decries, but he does insist that they focus their minds on the game. "If we get their minds tuned to the game, I can be sure they will improve and succeed." he said.

"What they must strive for is improving their own game and integrating that into the team. For a player is only as good as his team-mate. We don't expect the players to move mountains but we won't allow mediocrity.

"I will be hard on myself and do my best. I am a very competitive person; I can't play a card game and not be competitive. There is nothing friendly about what I do. But the pressure doesn't concern me. I had the same pressure with the [national] Under-21s. I know this is the Boks and it is more intense at this level because you have a nation to satisfy. I try to be the best I can and sometimes maybe I put too much pressure on myself. But that's me."

Players like Victor Matfield, Habana, Peter Grant and Luke Watson have most impressed the new coach thus far. "These are the guys that are on top at the moment," he said.

"They still have that urgency to be better and they work hard to achieve it. That impresses me. Victor Matfield is a genius of a player, an expert in the line-out and on top of his game. But he still works very hard. That is the kind of attitude we need.

"In overall terms, I don't know how good we are. But I like this challenge and I want to be among the best in the world. I am not scared by that. The players have to be the same. They must have the same hunger to achieve and they have to perform.

"If they do that to the full extent of their capabilities, then we will be unstoppable."

Peter de Villiers' CV

*Born 3 June 1957.

*Played at scrum-half during South Africa's apartheid era.

*Introduction to coaching: Appointed coach of amateur side Tygerberg in 1996; Western Province Disas 1997.

*Senior career & honours: First major appointment in 1998, as assistant coach for Western Province in the Currie Cup. Took South Africa Under-19s to third place in the 1999 Under-19 World Championship in Wales. Coached Valke (formerly Eastern Transvaal) in 2002 and 2003 Currie Cups before taking over the national Under-21 side in 2004. Won the World Championship in Argentina in 2005. Coach of Emerging Springboks who won the 2007 Nations Cup.

Today's Bloemfontein line-ups

South Africa

15 C Jantjes (W Province)

14 T Chavhanga (W Prov)

13 A Jacobs (Sharks)

12 J de Villiers (W Prov)

11 B Habana (Blue Bulls)

10 B James (Bath)

9 B Conradie (W Province)

1 G Steenkamp (Blue Bulls)

2 J Smit (Clermont, capt)

3 B Mujati (W Province)

4 B Botha (Blue Bulls)

5 A Bekker (W Province)

6 L Watson (W Province)

7 J Smith (Cheetahs)

8 P Spies (Blue Bulls)

Replacements: 16 B du Plessis (Sharks); 17 CJ van der Linde (Cheetahs); 18 V Matfield; 19 D Rossouw (both Blue Bulls); 20 R Pienaar (Sharks); 21 P Grant (W Prov); 22 P Montgomery (Perpignan).


15 J Roberts (Blues)

14 M Jones (Scarlets)

13 T Shanklin (Blues)

12 S Parker (Ospreys)

11 S Williams (Ospreys)

10 S Jones (Scarlets)

9 G Cooper (Gloucester)

1 G Jenkins (Blues)

2 M Rees (Scarlets)

3 A Jones (Ospreys)

4 I Gough (Ospreys)

5 A-W Jones (Ospreys)

6 J Thomas (Ospreys)

7 D Jones (Scarlets)

8 R Jones (Ospreys, capt)

Replacements: 16 D Jones; 17 R Hibbard; 18 I Evans (all Ospreys); 19 G Delve (Gloucester); 20 W Fury (London Irish); 21 J Hook (Ospreys); 22 M Stoddard (Scarlets).

Referee: D Pearson (Eng)

Kick-off: 2pm (Sky Sports 2)