Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - South African rugby looks to be going into a holding pattern until September 28, which is the day of the Tri-Nations review, when hopefully some concrete announcement on the issue of Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, will be made.
While South African Rugby Union (SARU) officials are severely embarrassed by De Villiers’ off-field outbursts and there is grave concern over the Bok form in a year where the sustainability of the much spoken-of player-driven system, in which John Smit, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez are effectively said to be the coaches, has come into focus, it is unlikely the official head coach will lose his job.
It is understood that now even high-ranking members of the country’s ruling party (ANC) want De Villiers to be shown the door on the basis:
a) that he has not fulfilled the transformation promises he made when he was campaigning for the job and
b) his controversial stint is sending out the wrong message about what the public should expect from a black coach.
The latter consideration is a real one and a concerning one. In the wake of the Tri-Nations disaster and the off-field comedy that accompanied it, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee’s credentials to take over are starting to be written off by many people on the basis that “we’ve gone that route before and look where it has taken us”.
Of course that is patently unfair and the product of faulty logic, for just as Heyneke Meyer, for instance, is a very different coach from Carel du Plessis, so De Villiers is radically different in his approach from Coetzee and the thoughtful and erudite Paul Treu.
However, while SARU officials are said to know about the substantial pitfalls that lie in the way if De Villiers continues, and some are keen to see the back of him on the basis of the fires that they have had to put out during his reign, there are financial considerations standing in their way.
If De Villiers goes, it is not just him who might have to be paid out – assuming that the organisation doesn’t push through a “bringing rugby into disrepute” charge – but also the assistant coaches. Their contracts may not be linked to that of the head coach but a new coach would probably want to bring in his own support team.
Then there is the contracted group of 20 players. What would become of them? There are surely several players who might drop out of the group if a new coach came in, and it is understood that fear of the potential disruption that could be caused by a complete clean-out does feature in the deliberating.
Yet while all of this will probably save De Villiers his job, it is highly unlikely the coach and the current management team will be allowed to continue as they have been. At the very least, additions are to be made to the management staff, additions designed to bring the one essential ingredient, apart possibly from discipline, that the current set-up lacks – namely heavyweight rugby thinking.
De Villiers’ predecessor Jake White introduced that at his own behest in 2007 when he recruited former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones as his technical adviser. The union between White and Jones was of great benefit to the Boks, and it is believed that some influential senior Boks wouldn’t mind Jones getting involved again.
Ironically, however, Jones was not the first man introduced into the position of technical adviser by White. Rassie Erasmus preceded him, and did some impressive work with the team before he had to cry off because he had accepted what was essentially the Western Province director of rugby job. Why it is an irony is because Erasmus’ name, along with that of the New Zealander coaching the Lions, John Mitchell, comes up more and more when solutions to the current crisis are discussed.
What would probably be different now to the arrangements involving White and Jones and Erasmus is that this time the move would be driven by Saru, and given the current head coaches growing notoriety for being unpredictable and difficult to work with, anyone who agrees to work with De Villiers is going to have to drive a hard bargain.
For a start, it is going to be pointless having a technical director if De Villiers is still going to allow the players to drive the strategy, as is the case at the moment, where the official assistant coaches are said to be third on the decision making tier.
A technical adviser in this instance, unless he wants to risk his entire rugby reputation on something that could go pear-shaped, is going to have to be given some power to dictate strategy and, obviously, also have a say in selection. Whether De Villiers would be happy with this is open to question, but the feeling is that recent results and events have left him in a position where he can no longer dictate the shots.
Meanwhile the end of year tour is getting closer, and the departure date for Ireland, where the first test will be played, is just a month and a half away. At this stage it seems likely that the De Villiers move to rest 13 top Boks for the Grand Slam tour will be carried, which means the selectors do have quite a bit of work to do in the Currie Cup.
There is plenty of young talent coming through, but there are also complications to be cleared up such as the injury that makes Jean Deysel, surely a prime candidate for a starting place in a new-look back-row, a doubtful tourist. And then there is the uncertainty over who Lionel Mapoe, the brilliant winger, should be playing for – the Cheetahs or the Sharks.