JOHANNESBURG, October 10 – South Africa coach Peter de Villiers hailed veteran forwards John Smit and Victor Matfield Monday as the outgoing Rugby World Cup champions arrived home to an enthusiastic welcome from several hundred supporters.
“They are great people … they are my heroes,” De Villiers said of captain and hooker Smit and vice-captain and lock Victor Matfield at a brief media conference in OR Tambo airport here one day after a 11-9 quarter-final loss to bogey team Australia in Wellington.
Smit and Matfield are retiring from Test rugby union and De Villiers does not expect his contract to be renewed in December.
He had indicated as such when he told reporters in New Zealand that “there is a time to come and a time to go and I think the journey for me is over”.
“I never resigned … I just said it was the end of the road for me. My contract ends in December,” stressed the man whose four-year tenure had more lows than highs.
Critics said he conceded far too much off-field authority to senior players Smit, Matfield and scrum-half Fourie du Preez.
Both highlights of the De Villiers reign came two seasons ago when the Springboks won an absorbing three-Test series against the British and Irish Lions and lifted the Tri-Nations southern hemisphere championship for only the third time.
Allister Coetzee and Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus of Western Province, Heyneke Meyer of the Blue Bulls and former All Blacks handler John Mitchell of Currie Cup leaders the Golden Lions are considered strong candidates to replace De Villiers, the first black coach of the Springboks.
De Villiers refused to be drawn into criticising New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence, whose interpretation of the breakdown laws against the Wallabies provoked harsh criticism in most South African newspapers.
“I have made peace with the refereeing of Bryce Lawrence,” was the surprisingly terse and mild comment from a coach who has courted controversy during his Springbok career for outspoken comments and sometimes bizarre claims.
“We did not achieve what we wanted to. We gave you (supporters) a lot of hope when we left for New Zealand.
“We never fulfilled our own dreams and we never fulfilled yours,” said a visibly emotional De Villiers as he battled to hold back tears.
Capped a record 111 times by South Africa, Smit dropped his normal diplomatic guard when quizzed about Lawrence: “One of the positives going forward is that I will never have to be refereed by Bryce Lawrence again.
“There are great years ahead for the Springboks. There are some brilliant players available for selection and those who fill the boots of the ‘old guard’ will make a huge difference. I think the future is strong,” added Smit.
Surrounded by two young daughters, Matfield described his 110-cap Springbok career as “fantastic. I had an unbelievable journey, achieved a lot, went through some hard times, but enjoyed every second of it.”