By Enock Muchinjo
A WEEK after Peter de Villiers (pictured) survived the axe as Zimbabwe rugby coach, a scathing report compiled by him last month — chronicling the series of challenges faced in his first year in charge — has emerged.
In the internally-circulated report, exclusively obtained by IndependentSport this week, de Villiers fired a stern broadside at the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) for interference in team selection, among an array of grievances related to his discharge of duty, administration and player welfare.
Tellingly, the former Springbok coach also shed light on his dramatic fallout with assistant coach Brendan Dawson, which resulted in the reshuffling of the Sables coaching department towards the end of the 2018 Africa Gold Cup campaign.
De Villiers viciously laid into Dawson, accusing the former Zimbabwe captain of constantly undermining his authority — much to the detriment of the team and results.
It appears in the report that tension existed between de Villiers, the ZRU top brass and some key stakeholders, with selection at the heart of the matter.
“I have had occasions where external assurances get given to players that they will play,” wrote de Villiers. “Or I have been told ‘so-and-so must play’. It creates a false sense of security where players will not believe they need to work hard to keep their spot on the line-up. If individuals learn not to value their positions on the team because of complacency, the overall standard of play will be very low, or inconsistent at best.”
Without giving names, de Villiers further spoke of how top officials within the union tried to force his hand in the make-up of the team.
“When executives make direct changes in day-to-day matters of matches, training, who gets to play, etc — it cuts to the heart of giving the team any ability to build trust. Players have to be fielded from the field, not the office. I have been given lists before a match of who should play, rather than who is fit to play, or who deserves in those current circumstances to play.
“Players do have x-ray vision and see through management schemes quickly, which can limit their best performance. This can foster (has already fostered) massive distrust among players, lingering suspicions that their positions they work hard for are ‘not safe’, because ‘so-and-so’ can be instantly brought on (even from standby) by reason of off-pitch deals, phone calls and other things that work to deprive hard and faithful workers of their chance to play and build careers.”
Turning to Dawson, de Villiers came out guns blazing in an even more frank section of the report — reprimanding his erstwhile right-hand man for his “highly disruptive influence” and manoeuvres to seize control of the Sables.
In the season-concluding report, de Villiers refers to Dawson as the “assistant coach” despite the former Sables skipper being removed from the role for the last two Tests against Namibia and Uganda as the rift between the two widened.
Like de Villiers, Dawson was contracted for two years.
“He has proven challenging to work with in terms of constantly arguing with, undermining, and openly contradicting my authority,” de Villiers wrote of Dawson.
“This resulted in causing negative vibes in the team because they (players) wondered who they are supposed to listen to. Some of them may be used to having him as their leader due to his previous appointment, so surely it can be understood why re-appointing him as assistant coach without spelling out clear limitations to his influence can cause problems later on.”
The previous appointment alluded to by de Villiers is Dawson’s past position as Zimbabwe’s head coach, when he nearly guided the Sables to the 2015 World Cup, coming just a bonus-point shy.
And with de Villiers having stuttered through this year’s World Cup qualification campaign — his side teetering on the brink of relegation from Africa’s premier competition before surviving the chop on the last game of the season — it is clear from the report that a clash of egos and battle for control developed between the South African and his local deputy.
“He has on several occasions tried to curry (sic) players to himself by making them extracurricular promises I had no knowledge of or had not agreed to,” said de Villiers. “These promises were based on matters of his own knowledge I was not given access to, but they served to disrupt the overall expectations of the team.”
De Villiers further questioned Dawson’s part-time role with the Sables, despite being recruited on a full contract at the beginning of the year.
“The assistant coach is not a consistent presence for the team,” he wrote. “He has multiple other interests that he cannot get away from, which means he is absent for large parts of what we do as a unit.”
The ex-Bok boss added: “It appears he (Dawson) believes our positions are equal. However, it is clear that they are not, nor were they intended to be. He has been quite detrimental to the cause — working as someone used by external stakeholders to inform people, and also to continuously challenge my competencies.
“He takes it on his own authority to change the line-up, by replacing listed players with those he wants to run. Players have reported this to me many times, including at away fixtures. They feel he does not speak strength to their weaknesses but instead highlights them as means of weakening their overall play and self-confidence on the field.
“However, if we say a key goal is locally and internationally ready players, then we must admit that an element that weakens from within is not one we should protect. Coaching the team and assisting with coaching are two different sets of roles and responsibilities; it is essential to find the balance and separation between the two, and maintain it.
“Undermining authority breaks down structures and has been shown, structures make the team stronger. The assistant coach needs to rapidly understand his position, or the work relationship may break down irretrievably.”
De Villiers, addressing the ZRU, said the union needed to prioritise “the need for making quick decisions that can boost or hamper the team”.
The 61-year-old also called for the formulation of a social media policy.
“We have to control the narrative; control what the media can say about us by removing evidence of breakdown within the Zimbabwe camp. We must learn to use internal communications to work out differences, not Twitter. Let us work on further ideas to place our focus where it is sorely needed,” he wrote.
Last weekend’s ZRU annual general meeting in Gweru resolved against firing de Villiers, who had come under intense pressure after Zimbabwe’s disastrous World Cup qualification campaign.