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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.
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De Villiers is no class clown
Stephen Nell
September 28, 2009
Springboks coach Peter de Villiers smiles during a press conference, Shimla Park, Bloemfontein, South Africa, July 21, 2009
Peter de Villiers deserves some credit for getting the better of his rivals © Getty Images
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So surely Peter de Villiers, the sometimes eccentric Springbok coach, can't be a complete clown, as critics suggest, can he?

I sat down with the man for a cup of coffee in his home town of Paarl last week and it was interesting to hear how he has set about honing the world champions' skills since he took over the coaching reins from Jake White.

De Villiers claims to have been misunderstood last year when he spoke about asking the South African players to play "total rugby". This, he says, was not asking them to run the ball from everywhere, but about empowering them to make decisions.

He is quite clear about the fact that he does not want to send robots onto the field. South Africa's first three performances in the Tri-Nations - a series victory over the All Blacks followed by a thumping of the Wallabies at Newlands - certainly had a robotic feel about them.

The tactical kicking by scrumhalf Fourie du Preez was the most significant feature. And then, just when the complaints came from Down Under about South Africa's kick-and-charge tactics, the Boks ran the Aussies off their feet in Perth.

There is not universal acknowledgement that De Villiers is the brains behind this. His critics persist with the argument that it is the brainstrust among the senior players that is making these calls.

The critics' logic is probably as follows: How can someone who talks so much nonsense in front of the world's media be so smart? However, De Villiers was significantly more measured in his interaction with the media following the public relations debacles during the series against the British and Irish Lions.

He denies this, stating that he only gives stupid anwers to stupid questions. If he is confronted with something technical about the game, he obliges with a decent answer. Furthermore, he believes South Africa are benefiting from the current Bok management's decision to equip players with different skills sets for whatever situation they may encounter.

South Africa certainly embarked on a different route this year to last. That De Villiers made mistakes during his first year in charge is a fact, but so too that this international season has been a triumph.

 
"Yes, the senior players have a major say, but De Villiers has created that environment."
 

Whatever your opinion of the Bok coach, it cannot be denied that he has proved himself to be adaptable and facilitated the turnaround. Part of the South African package is a core of senior players and leaders, including John Smit, Victor Matfield, Jean de Villiers and Juan Smith, that has enabled them to build on the achievements of 2007.

Sure, De Villiers inherited a good side, but his ego did not get in the way of keeping what was good from White's era. He has also added bright new faces such as loosehead prop Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira, flanker Heinrich Brüssow and flyhalf Morné Steyn to the mix. The fact is that the current Springbok side is a better one than the class of 2007 that delivered the World Cup.

Yes, the senior players have a major say, but De Villiers has created that environment. And if you still argue that he's a clown, what does that make Martin Johnson, Robbie Deans, Ian McGeechan and Graham Henry? Johnson suffered a record defeat to De Villiers at Twickenham, the Bok coach thumped Deans by a record margin, McGeechan suffered a series defeat and Henry was beaten three times in the same year.

So is world rugby coached by a bunch of morons, or does De Villiers simply deserve to take a bow?

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