For better or worse, the Pieter de Villiers era has come to an end. Many felt at the time of his appointment that Heyneke Meyer was the best candidate, and now four years later he will get his opportunity to prove them wrong.
Like his predecessor Jake White, Pieter de Villiers’ tenure was full of controversy, albeit of a different kind. Jake White was in trouble with SARU more often than not; and almost lost his job at the end of 2006 when he was called into a meeting with SARU mere days before the Springboks faced England. He had to fly back home to justify his selections and performances. Prior to the World Cup in 2007 once again selection issues reared its ugly head when he was forced to include Luke Watson, son of Cheeky Watson, an antiapartheid activist. Jake White wasn’t the most popular coach in South Africa, in fact, I doubt whether any coach in South Africa is really ever favoured.
PDV on the other hand suffered from foot in mouth disease, his public quirks to the media was often misunderstood and scoffed at. Where JW was a superb technical analyst, in contrast to White he didn’t seem to have much technical knowhow, and often had issues with his assistant coaches, during 2010 wanted to get rid of them.
To his credit PDV did want to bring a new methodology to the Springboks, he tried to change the way they played in 2008, but that was almost immediately discarded by a group of senior players he recalled back to the Springbok squad. Perhaps this was his biggest downfall, the fact that he wanted continuity with the squad. Sadly he was never able to enforce his new game plan and we will never know whether it would have worked. Therein lies the PDV conundrum.
How do you measure a man who retained the majority of 2007 world Cup winners, continued with the same game plan for an additional four years, even when law changes and especially interpretation at the tackle/breakdown area changed and never had enough faith or gumption to enforce his own brand of rugby on his team?
PDV had choices to make. If he believed in his methodology, he could have enforced it upon the players, or he could have gotten rid of those players who refused change. Instead he took the easy way out, he empowered his senior players and although he often said he valued input from everyone in the squad, the final decision rested with him.
On face value there are some similarities between PDV and JW. Both won a Tri Nations trophy. JW ended his tenure with a 68% win record, PDV ended on 62%. Both worked on the principal of “judge me at the world cup”. The negative of that principal was the number of tests they sacrificed for the “good of the ultimate goal”.
But that is where the similarities end. On the plus side for Jake White was a World Cup medal, for PDV an early exit. PDV won a British and Irish Lions series, and both won a Tri Nations trophy.
But when you want to see the real measure of how South Africa will rate their successes, you need to look at their two main rivals.
JW had a superior win record against Australia, but an inferior record against the All Blacks, PDV had a very poor record against Australia and a marginally better record against the All Blacks, even though, still inferior. Overall JW won 45% of his Tri Nation matches. PDV only won 39% of his Tri Nation matches.
Would it not have been better for both of them to have taken all these matches as must win games, selecting their best available players in every match?
When records are analysed years later, it doesn’t matter who played, what matter are only the results.
JW rarely got credit for the squad he built from near scratch at the start of his tenure, he brought back two players lost to international rugby, Os du Randt and Percy Montgomery. During this time he handed out debut caps to 36 players, of whom Fourie du Preez, Gurthro Steenkamp, Bryan Habana, Enrico January, Gary Botha, Wynand Olivier, Johan Muller, Akona Ndungane, JP Pietersen, Chiliboy Ralapelle, Pierre Spies, BJ Botha, Ruan Pienaar, Bevin Fortuin, Francois Steyn, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Peter Grant and Ryan Kankowski which would make up the core of his 2007 world cup squad in addition to already capped players such as John Smit, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Butch James, Ande Pretorius, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villiers.
At the start of Pieter de Villiers’ tenure, he recalled Victor Matfield, Jean de Villiers and John Smit. He handed out 30 debut caps, importantly though four of those debutants were thrown into the cauldron of Tri Nation rugby, whilst the real Springboks were wrapped in cotton wool prior to the 2011 world Cup.
Not all of it was bad though; he did manage to bring through some debutants worth a mention, Andries Bekker, Beast Mtiwarira, Heinrich Brussow, Morne Steyn, Juan du Jongh, Francois Hougaardt, Ashley Johnson, Jean Deysel, Pat Lambie, Willem Alberts and Coenie Oosthuizen. These are all certain future stars and should make part of the new coach’s squad selections.
The problem for PDV by all accounts was the fact that he didn’t have enough belief in these youngsters and stuck to the tried and tested. He often created the perception that his debutants were selected out of panic, necessity and pressure from outside sources. His selections seemed to stink of reactive rather than proactive thinking.
Was PDV a bad coach? No, his players’ respect for him is testament to the fact that he was a good man manager and carried their best interest at heart. Was he the best technical coach? No, certainly not, his helter skelter substitutions at crucial times during matches prove that. Was he the worst coach South Africa ever appointed? Certainly not, that honour belongs to other less successful candidates who had much less of his qualities.
Pieter de Villiers will forever be remembered as the first non-white coach of the Springboks, hopefully he will also be remembered that despite his shortcomings, he won a British and Irish Lions series, he won the 2009 Tri Nation series by white washing the All Blacks, and perhaps most importantly he showed us how to beat New Zealand at home, not only once, but twice.