SOME coaches come into a new post and try to buy time for themselves by insisting they will need years to sort out the problems they have inherited. Some, by contrast, get down to business straight away and make a swift impact. Pieter de Villiers is definitely in the latter category.
Although he has only been part of the Scotland set-up as scrum coach for a couple of months, the South African-born former France international has quickly got to grips with his task. That much was clear in the set-piece against Ireland, the first game in the Six Nations, and subsequent outings have built on that solid start.
Not that the 47-year-old wants to claim the lion’s share of the credit for that. Instead, he praises the players’ willingness to learn, and their ability to absorb new information rapidly – more rapidly, he reckons, than any other group he has worked with in a coaching career that has also seen him work with the Springboks.
“It’s been fantastic working with this group,” De Villiers said earlier this week after a training session at Oriam. “The players I’ve walked in on are top-end players whose work on and off the field is excellent, whose work ethic is outstanding. I think that’s the reason why we progressed so quickly, because the base was very solid. It’s been a real privilege to work with these guys.
“It’s probably the group that has responded the quickest ever. Knowing the players now, it isn’t a surprise, because I see how much they work on and off the field and how disciplined they are in terms of putting in the effort. But yes, we got some quick results in certain departments which also speaks to what has gone before, because when I went to Edinburgh and to Glasgow I could see that there was a lot of work ethic there.
“So it was a matter of a few changes here and there, a few suggestions. A bit of endurance work in certain areas helped, but I thought the base was very solid and that’s why they reacted quickly.”
The respect and appreciation is reciprocated by the players, as Fraser Brown explained. “The way Pieter has come in has been brilliant- he’s been welcomed by everyone, he’s got a great personality in the group, he gets on well with everyone,” the hooker said. “But the detail and the passion that he brings to that area of the game has been taken on board by everyone and you can see the improvements we’ve had already in such a short period of time.
“It’s not easy, whether it’s scrum, defence, whatever, to make big changes in such a short window like the Six Nations is, particularly when you’ve got a lot of new guys coming into the squad. And I think that’s testament to how well he’s fitted in, and [defence coach[ Steve Tandy as well: how hard they work, how receptive the whole squad has been to their ideas, the fact that our defence has been going very well, our scrum has been going very well. Pieter has been brilliant since he’s come in.”
While the scrum is De Villiers’ speciality within the coaching team, his background in French rugby will also come in useful this week. He not only won well over a half-century of caps in an eight-year spell from 1999, he also played alongside current France coach Fabien Galthie and team manager Raphael Ibanez in a team whose style was pretty similar, he believes, to the one the current squad have adopted.
“I have a little bit of an insight into how the French play,” the former tighthead prop admitted. “With the French you need to do well up front at the set piece and in terms of the physicality, and once you get that done you’re in the game. But if you don’t do well there then it’s going to be a long day at the office. That’s especially the case against this French team, who have taken to those traditional values.
“Since the World Cup I think a lot of teams have been thinking about the way South Africa won with a specific type of game plan. In the past the French have been successful with a physical approach and a strong defensive part to their game, and I think that Fabien took the lessons out of the World Cup and has changed the classical way of playing French rugby.
“That said, I think the France players are all natural, flair-type players who can finish off opportunities, but they’ve definitely gone back to a bit more of a physical approach with a good kicking game and good defence. That makes them a more dangerous side, because they’ve definitely got powerful players.
“Fabien is an all-round coach and he’s particularly good at attack, but after the World Cup there’s been a greater stress on defence and physicality. They’ve certainly changed their approach a bit to become a bit less predictable and give less turnovers. So we’ll have to front up to that, but Scotland have also proved to be very physical and to have a good set piece, so I think it will be a very good battle.”Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 27)
It is clear, then, that De Villiers has given a lot already and has a lot more to give, but as things stand he is not guaranteed to stay in his post beyond the present Championship. Given that Scotland are heading to South Africa and then New Zealand in the summer, however, he would surely come in useful on that tour, and if offered an extension to his present contract he appears certain to accept.
“I’m enjoying it a lot. We’ve already spoken briefly and I’ll speak again with the Scottish Rugby officials, but from my side I’d definitely be happy to continue. In South Africa I did work in a wider kind of role, working with coaches and younger players, but those are things for later – the job now is to scrum well on Sunday.”
De Villiers also revealed that the conference call between the coaching team and Finn Russell, which had to be postponed from its original scheduled time on Tuesday, has now taken place. The Racing 92 stand-off will not play for Scotland in this Six Nations, having fallen out with head coach Gregor Townsend back in January, but his participation in a call designed to draw on his knowledge of the French game is another encouraging sign of his gradual rehabilitation.
“We spoke to Finn because he plays in France,” De Villiers explained. “Finn is at Racing working with some of the players who play for France and some of the coaches who are involved with France, so he’s obviously invaluable for us in terms of information – bits and bobs of strategy and tactics in French rugby that we will hopefully use. We spoke rugby, about technique and strategy.”