Italy’s South African coach Nick Mallett has paid tribute to his countryman and Springboks opposite number Peter de Villiers ahead of Saturday’s international at the Stadio Friuli.
Mallett was South Africa coach from 1997 to 2000 and took over the Italy job after the last World Cup in 2007.
De Villiers was acting assistant to Mallett during his time at the South African helm before going on to become the first non-white coach to take over the top job in South African rugby.
And while some criticised that appointment, saying it was politically motivated, Mallett believes De Villiers has proved himself.
”Peter de Villiers achieved great results with a little club called Tygerberg and also with Western Province Disas and in 1997, when I was the Springboks coach, he came to our first tournament,” said Mallett here on Friday.
”He came with us as an assistant but also to have the opportunity that non white coaches did not have at that time and at every tournament thereafter we took a black or mixed-race coach, who in South Africa didn’t have same opportunities, to spend three weeks with the team.
”Already at that time he had good ideas and a lot of self-confidence and since then he’s improved a lot because he took over the under-19s and the under-21s, with whom he won the World Championships.
”I think there’s no more doubts about whether or not he can be a good coach because the results are fantastic.
”They’ve beaten the [British and Irish] Lions, they’re the Tri-Nations champions, they’ve won their last three games against the All Blacks and the last two years they’ve won in New Zealand, which was always a stumbling block for South Africa.
”And with his two assistants, Gary Gold and Dick Muir, the three have done huge work with this team.
”He’s improved a lot, also with his handling of the press. The first year was a bit difficult for him but the second year he has proved more available and he has more experience now.”
It’s not just De Villiers who has improved, though, Italy too are on an upward curve.
Mallett was the coach when South Africa inflicted a record 101-0 defeat on Italy in Durban in 1999 but he insists the current team is a totally different prospect.
”I don’t like to talk too much about that time, I think Italy had problems between players and coaches and I found out afterwards that two or three important players didn’t go,” he said.
”Maybe they had money problems and problems between the players and the federation and also the players wanted to change coach during the tour and that’s not a good sign for a team that goes to South Africa.
”We had a great team then, we won the first match 74-3 and then we changed the whole team and played the Bs and won 101-0.
”But Italy’s team is different now. The first thing is that this Italian team has many players that play at a much higher level than they did in 1999.
”We have 10 players playing at European Cup level and also champions of England and the players in Italy have also improved a lot physically and technically.
”There’s been a big, big difference in the last two or three years. In my first year I saw a big difference between the players who play abroad and those that play in Italy in terms of physical preparation.
”Now there’s not much difference. Young players like [Alberto] Sgarbi, (Simone) Favaro, [Matteo] Pratichetti and Gonzalo Garcia, even older players like Leonardo’ Ghiraldini, [Alessandro] Zanni are capable of playing in France and England without any problem, so physically the squad is better prepared.” — AFP