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Stephen Nell | Columnist Index
Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
South African Rugby
De Villiers' rookie mistake
Stephen Nell
April 14, 2009
Springboks head coach Peter de Villiers speaks during a press conference, Southern Sun Grayston Hotel, Johannesburg, South Africa, August 29, 2008
Peter De Villiers could be in hot water after recent political statements © Getty Images
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Springbok coach Peter de Villiers effectively tightened the noose around his own neck this past week when he pledged his support to South Africa's ruling African National Congress. The move prior to the country's elections sparked a furious reaction among rugby bosses, some of whom have their own party political affiliations. The difference, however, is that they do not wear it on their sleeves.

De Villiers will not be called to a disciplinary hearing or publicly reprimanded. His unprecedented move has not defied any SA Rugby regulation or gone against the terms of his contract. However, the consequences of his actions may have long-term implications.

Had De Villiers not been Springbok coach, nobody would have cared which party he backed. Through his actions he is therefore linking the Springbok brand with the ANC, a party with whom South Africa's rugby bosses are frequently at odds because of their demands on transforming the sport.

Individuals with links to the ANC have also led the campaign against the Springbok emblem. They have also supported controversial loose forward Luke Watson in the wake of his statement that he had to keep himself from vomiting on the Springbok jersey.

The move by De Villiers certainly has the potential to drive a wedge between him and many of the country's rugby supporters. It's also debatable whether the ANC enjoy tremendous support among senior Springbok players, who are often irritated by the politics affecting the game in South Africa.

Another possibility is that of De Villiers becoming a political target. Now that he is the ANC's man, how will rugby bosses with affiliations to other parties react when the next round of hardship on the field comes around? South Africa have an abundance of experienced rugby talent, but very few coaches are exempt from a poor run.

 
"Now that he is the ANC's man, how will rugby bosses with affiliations to other parties react when the next round of hardship on the field comes around?"
 

While De Villiers has not responded to invitations to discuss the issue in depth, it appears to be a rookie mistake, where his judgement let him down badly. It certainly does not inspire a great deal of confidence prior to a season where a tour by the British and Irish Lions will be followed by the Tri-Nations. You can't ask for a tougher assignment than playing nine tests like that on the trot. The full implications will probably only become clear once De Villiers's Springboks start losing again. If that happens, expect an ugly fight to be fought in political trenches.

Former Springbok coach Jake White certainly upped the ante on De Villiers in the past week when he said South Africa should aim for nothing else than beating the Lions 3-0 in the series. Now that's an easy statement to make if you're sitting on the sidelines. It's entirely different in practice, where the Lions will have the advantage of gelling into a unit prior to the first test in Durban. The Springboks will have no such luxuries.

Some of the senior players may still be involved in the Super14 final at the time that a South African XV takes on a Namibian Invitational side in Windhoek. At this stage it appears to be the only scheduled warm-up game, with the proposed New Zealand Maoris fixture apparently off.

Increasingly, one is therefore getting the feeling the Lions' chances of taking the series will hinge on striking a blow against a potentially undercooked Springbok side in the first test on June 20.

The Boks will, of course, have the chance of getting together at a training camp prior to that. However, nothing beats match practice and it may just benefit the South Africans to arrange another fixture to ensure they gel in the first test.

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