Finger on all the right buttons

Anyone who has ever sat through a Peter de Villiers press conference knows the feeling of light-headedness that ensues. You find yourself wondering: “Did he really say that?”

Well this week he was at it again in Brisbane, following the Springboks’ fourth successive win in the Tri-Nations.

With injuries starting to affect the team and memories of the third Test against the British and Irish Lions to the fore, De Villiers was asked whether he would make sweeping changes to the team for the Suncorp Stadium Test on Saturday.

“I only make the same mistake once,” he said.

Or maybe he didn’t, because another report of the same conference quotes De Villiers as saying: “You know, you only make a mistake once in your life.
I made that mistake with the Lions. I chose to work in our favour because I know where I stand with combinations and individual abilities. [But] for me to do the same thing now, when will I learn?”

Quite. The point to be made is that reporters are no longer seeking out the familiar malapropisms and non sequiturs.

Instead they are trying to understand how the vertically challenged coach has discovered the way to press all the right buttons for what may just be the best Springbok team of all time.

This time last year the knives were out. The Boks had just lost successive home Tests for the first time in Tri-Nations history. They had also lost two of their three away games, giving De Villiers a record of five wins and four defeats for his first nine games in charge. Few then could conceive that things were about to go spectacularly right.

It began against Australia in Johannesburg on August 30. Having lost to the Wallabies in Durban the previous week, the Boks turned on a visceral performance on the Highveld and Jongi Nokwe’s four tries were the highlight of a 53-8 win. Starting on that day De Villiers’s side has won 10 out of 11 Tests, breaking a string of records along the way.

The one defeat came, ironically, at fortress Ellis Park on a day when De Villiers made 10 changes to the team that had clinched the series a week previously against the Lions. That was what the coach was referring to when he said: “I only make the same mistake once.”

So now with 20 Tests under his belt, De Villiers’s record reads: won 15, lost five—which is a much more acceptable statistic. A win in Brisbane will deliver a first title to the former scrumhalf. It would also go a long way towards ensuring that he will still be in charge when the Boks defend their world championship in New Zealand two years from now.

For those who wonder why that should ever have been in doubt, given that he was appointed for exactly that reason, consider the events of the recent past. Following their 1995 World Cup triumph, the Boks went through four coaches before flying north to defend their title at the 1999 event.

Kitch Christie either stood down because of ill health, or was sacked, depending on who you choose to believe. Andre Markgraaff resigned after uttering the “k” word in a clandestinely recorded meeting. Carel du Plessis lasted less than a full season after losing a series to the Lions, which meant that Nick Mallett was given his chance despite never having coached one of the big five South African unions.

Within 12 months of accepting the challenge, Mallet had won his first title: the 1998 Tri-Nations. In those days the three contestants played each other only twice, but even so, the Boks’ unbeaten run was something to celebrate. Eleven years later De Villiers has the chance to improve on Mallett’s achievement by going unbeaten through six Tri-Nations fixtures.

There is little standing in his way. The Wallabies softened the blow in Perth by scoring two tries in the last 10 minutes. In reality they were comprehensively defeated.

The Boks have a poor record at this week’s venue in Brisbane. They have won there only twice, the last time being in 1971. Few will need reminding that the score on the last trip ended as Australia 49, South Africa 0.

That was John Smit’s most embarrassing day as Springbok captain and will be one of the motivating factors behind this week’s effort. Also on the field that day were Jaque Fourie, Bryan Habana, Juan Smith, Victor Matfield and—making his test debut—Pierre Spies.

The World Cup win 15 months later made it clear that it was not that bad a side, but it marked a time in Jake White’s reign when the team had lost sight of how it wanted to play.

After last week’s win the class of 2009 is being lauded as a side that can play both ways—boringly and excitingly—and still win. The only thing likely to stop this team from silencing the few critics it has left is ennui. Glimpses of it were on show in Perth when an unassailable lead was whittled away.

It is the coach’s enviable task from here on in to remind his charges exactly how good they are and how long their names will be cherished when things have returned to normal a few years from now.

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