TO talk rugby excites him. I can hear it in Peter de Villiers' voice. Almost 12 years since his contract as a Springbok coach ended, he is back in the maelstrom of World Cup fever as a commentator for the SABC.
When I ask him about the technical aspects of the game, it is as if a light is switched on.
“Rugby has always been a special part of my life," he laughs.
“I feel privileged to be part of the public broadcaster's team of analysts. I am enjoying it enormously. It reminds me that I know this game."
What is going to happen this weekend? I ask him right off the bat.
He chooses his words carefully (but optimistically).
“The Boks have been very lucky until now and I hope that luck lasts. But if you are on a wave, you must ride it.
“The past two Tests were brutal. The level of defence we were forced into is not something you see every day. And it will have an impact on the team. One hopes it does not lie too deep and the guys can play through it.
De Villiers' 2009 Springbok team won three times against the All Blacks.
“Look, New Zealand play such a leading role in world rugby, and there will always be a psychological effect on any team they play. You stand a better chance of coming back against almost any other team. If you are in trouble with the All Blacks, it's a different matter. You must factor in a different psychological aspect when running onto the field to play the All Blacks."
Head and heart
It is interesting how carefully De Villiers chooses his words, as outspokenness was an integral part of his personality during his tenure as Springbok coach.
I ask if the Test against the French was one of the best in rugby history. And whether these Boks are the best team we've had?
“Those answers need to come from the head, not from the heart," he says.
“The other day, I looked at the definition of success in the dictionary. In English, it refers to a favourable outcome. So, if you look at how many favourable results this team has had, they are a very successful group. But are they the most successful? Other teams also had incredible success. Just take Nick Mallett's team, who won 17 Tests in a row.
And about the Test against the French: “Let me say this: we are quick to forget. We weren't favourites to win that game. So maybe we can say it was one of the best Tests ever because of how we came from the back to win it. And so we think with our heart and say it was the best. All these things are very subjective."
De Villiers was born and raised in Paarl. The Boland produced seven of the current Springboks: Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Grant Williams, Canan Moodie, Willie Le Roux and Handrè Pollard.
What is it about this part of the world that produces so many high-calibre rugby players?
“The Boland will always be an incubator for rugby talent. I think one of the reasons is that there are so many little towns where children still play rugby in the street. It's unlike in cities where every school has a green field. And you have to learn other skills to survive. For instance, you would rather not fall because you will hurt."
De Villiers laughs.
“I often said that if you grow up with little it can take you far because you know you have to push yourself."
I almost feel embarrassed to ask De Villiers about transformation. When he succeeded Jake White in 2009, becoming the first black Springbok rugby coach, the then president of SA Rugby, Oregan Hoskins, said: “We have made the appointment and taken into account the issue of transformation when we made it. I don't think that tarnishes Peter; I'm just being honest with our country."
De Villiers bore the brunt of the not-quite-good-enough “transformation" label throughout his tenure.
“What is transformation really?" he says. “Transformation is a change in how people think, your heart, your outlook. And if you look at how many people in our country are now proudly wearing the green jersey… that's transformation.
“Transformation has nothing to do with colour; I see it as a change of heart. It's a biblical principle — the renewing of your mind. And our country's mind is renewing.
“A three-strand rope breaks with far more difficulty than a one-strand rope. And what we see now on and off the field, with rugby, is a three-strand rope. White and brown and black together."
Our conversation turns to technical aspects — the rugby puzzles that get De Villiers animated.
I ask about our two flyhalves that have such different styles.
“Yes, you can't compare them to each other in any way. Both have their unique strengths. Manie Libbok is a creative flyhalf. He creates opportunities out of any situation to make things work for you, while Pollard is a more traditional kicking flyhalf. He's head down, and there he goes.
“With Manie, you know that the four or five guys around him also get into the game. What worries me is that with Manie, we have adopted a type of playing style that will be very difficult for us to change or adapt. The guys know how to run in support. After eight Manie Tests, those support lines have been drilled into them so that if you make changes, some guys will be between the devil and the deep blue sea because they won't know where to run to instinctively."
“I generally find referees terribly weak because they follow the rules that protect them. All rule changes that came into the game were not for the benefit of the players but for the benefit of the referee.
“They say they want to make the game safe. When was the game ever unsafe? Hard, yes. Physical, yes. All those things. But it has never been unsafe. Because people sometimes get concussed? Are people driving cars unsafe?
This is De Villiers, the rugby fanatic, in full flight.
“Rugby is a contact sport where you fight for space. And the harder you fight, the more likely you are to control the game. Now if people misinterpret that, that's their business. The important thing is we should not confuse contact with ‘collision'.
“Everything in rugby is a contest, and the guy who wins the contest is the one who's better off. But now they have changed the rules to disallow contests. You can no longer jump for a ball; you can no longer tackle high. If you tackle low, your chances of getting hurt are greater than if you tackle high. I've never seen anyone leave the field for a high tackle; a low tackle is when you get a concussion.
“Leave the game; let the guy lying there get trampled. Then he will know he shouldn't be there, and the ball will clear. That's how we learned to play the game. Now you are protected by the ref, and the ball remains dirty."
There is passion in De Villiers' voice.
“Sorry," he laughs. “The Lord has blessed me with a talent, although people out there don't always understand it, didn't always get me.
“I was at an event the other day where Dick Muir and Gary Gold from the Sharks gave a speech. And they said, ‘Peter was 10 years ahead of his time'. Sometimes it's nice to hear something like that."
Now, which kant is it?
I want to know his opinion about Tom Curry's allegation that Bongi Mbonambi used a racist slur.
“I don't know what he said, and you'll never know; only Bongi knows what he said. But sometimes, in the mix and heat of rugby, people say things you won't hear at Sunday school."
His concern about Mbonambi is entirely different — seen through his rugby analyst glasses.
“I think we made a big mistake when we brought Lukhanyo Am to replace [the injured Makazole] Mapimpi. We should have brought in a hooker instead, because even though Bongi isn't injured he is overplayed. And that worries me more than anything he would or wouldn't say."
De Villiers will be behind the microphone on Saturday when the Springboks run up against the All Blacks.
Is he as nervous as I am? “No, I've been through this stuff before. I have been doing this for a long time. One learns how to look at the facts. The team with the greatest fear of the other will be at a disadvantage. The team that first gets possession of the ball will have the advantage. It's going to be a great game."
♦ VWB ♦
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