WELLINGTON For someone with a reputation as a professional provocateur, Peter de Villiers had been remarkably discreet during this years Rugby World Cup. But of course it was only a matter of time before the South African coach would say something to ruffle some feathers.
That moment finally came on Monday, when De Villiers took the bold step of slagging off none other than the haka dance, one of host country New Zealands sacred symbols. Haka, a traditional war dance of the countrys indigenous Maori people, has gained notoriety throughout the world thanks to New Zealands national rugby team, the All Blacks, which performs the dance before international matches.
De Villiers suggested the All Blacks may be overdoing things when it comes to haka. The people get too used to it. Its no longer a novelty, so people dont respect it.
New Zealanders young and old were shocked and more than a little perplexed by the coachs brutal rebuff. Everyone, that is, except perhaps the Maori themselves, who may actually have appreciated the comments. During his polemical press conference, which was held in Opotaka, De Villiers talked about Ka Mate, a version of the haka warrior dance performed by the local Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe. The coach praised Ka Mate for its intensity and authenticity.
A Reputation That Precedes Him
For New Zealanders, this was their first real introduction to Mr. De Villier, a household name in South Africa who is as controversial as he is well known. At home, the 54-year-old coach also shoulders incredibly high expectations. The Springboks, as the South African rugby team is known, are the defending world champions. A win in this World Cup would be the teams third title a record. It would also make the Springboks the first team in tournament history to win back-to-back World Cups.
Rugby is a very big deal in South Africa. Four years ago, when the South African captain, John Smit, received the trophy, he immediately called for President Thabo Mbeki to lift it with him. The symbol of the rainbow nation, a white player and a black president united on the pitch, wasnt a first. Twelve years earlier, just after the end of the Apartheid, Nelson Mandela was handing the same trophy to Francois Pienaar in Johannesburg a historical moment captured in the Clint Eastwood movie, Invictus.
Somewhat surprisingly, South Africa replaced the coach that led them to the 2007 World Cup title: Jake White. The reason? White didnt see eye to eye with the powerful South African Rugby Union (SARU), which wanted to implement a quota for black players. White thought black players should like the famous player Bryan Habana earn their spot based on talent. The SARU fired White and replaced him, in 2008, with De Villiers, the Springboks first non-white coach.
Success On The Field, Controversy Off
Oregan Hoskins, the SARU president, opposed the move, but was forced to accept De Villiers because of parliamentary pressure from the ANC, Mandelas historic party. He let his disapproval be known by suggesting that rugby wasnt the only factor considered in choosing De Villiers. Other critics have echoed the sentiment, saying De Villiers earned the job because of the color of his skin, not his talent.
De Villiers proponents disagree, saying the coachs resume speaks for itself. A former scrumhalf, De Villiers began playing rugby during the Apartheid era. He went on to coach the Under 21 team to a World Cup victory in 2005, and then, two years later led the Emerging Springboks (the B team) to a win in the Cup of Nations.
Upon taking over as coach of the national team, De Villiers gave 16 of the squads 42 roster spots to black players. But he also convinced the white captain, John Smit, to stay on. After a difficult start, the team marked up some key victories beating the New Zealands powerful All Blacks, whom De Villiers called cheats before hand, and going on to win the 2009 Tri-Nations tournament.
Despite the teams success, the outspoken coach continues to be a lighting rod for controversy. He was caught in a media storm two years ago when he responded to criticism of black scrumhalf Ricky Januarie with thinly veiled accusations of racism.
He made one mistake on Saturday, but so did other players, said De Villiers. What Ive learned in South Africa is the following; if you take your car to a garage to be repaired and the owner is black and he doesn't do a good job, you will never take it back there again. But if the owner is white and the garage makes a mistake, people say, never mind, he made a mistake."
Later he defended flanker Schalk Burger, a white player, who received an eight-week suspension for gouging an opponents eye. Rugbys a contact sport and so is dance, he said. De Villiers urged anyone who has a problem with that to visit their nearest "ballet shop" and buy a tutu.
This time, the coachs humor landed him in hot water with South Africas sports minister, Makhenkesi Stofile, who told De Villiers to shut up or risk getting fired. Stofile was also uncomfortable with comments the coach made about the South African rugby player Jacobus 'Bees' Roux, who was arrested last year after allegedly beating a police officer to death. De Villiers said he was 100% behind Roux. The sports minister suggested De Villiers should hire a spokesperson as a way to stop running his mouth.
De Villiers, never known for his modesty, compares his plight to Jesus. "The same people who threw their robes on the ground when Jesus rode on a donkey, were the same people who crowned him and hit him with sticks and stuff like that, he said. I'm not saying I'm God. I have God-given talent. I am the best I can ever be.
And if the Springboks win the World Cup? A Boks coach who wins is a superhero, said De Villiers. One who loses is a clown. For now, anyway, the controversial coach is still somewhere in between those two poles.
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