Johannesburg - South Africa coach Peter de Villiers hailed veteran forwards John Smit and Victor Matfield on Monday as the outgoing Rugby World Cup champions arrived home to an enthusiastic welcome from several hundred supporters.
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"They are great people ... they are my heroes," De Villiers said of captain and hooker Smit and vice-captain and lock Victor Matfield at a brief media conference in OR Tambo airport here one day after a 11-9 quarter-final loss to bogey team Australia in Wellington.
Smit and Matfield are retiring from Test rugby and De Villiers does not expect his contract to be renewed in December after telling reporters in New Zealand that "there is a time to come and a time to go and I think the journey for me is over".
"I never resigned ... I just said it was the end of the road for me. My contract ends in December," stressed the man whose four-year tenure had more lows than highs with critics saying he conceded far too much off-field authority to senior players Smit, Matfield and scrumhalf Fourie du Preez.
Both highlights of the De Villiers reign came two seasons ago when the Springboks won an absorbing three-Test series against the British and Irish Lions and lifted the Tri-Nations for only the third time.
Allister Coetzee and Johan 'Rassie' Erasmus of Western Province, Heyneke Meyer of the Blue Bulls and former All Blacks handler John Mitchell of Currie Cup leaders the Golden Lions are considered strong candidates to replace De Villiers, the first black coach of the Springboks.