There’s a bitter irony to the distinguished career of Jean de Villiers: the 34-year-old is South Africa’s second-longest serving captain in terms of games – only the indomitable John Smit has more – and the Springboks most-capped centre of all time, yet retired this week having only played in just six World Cup matches.
De Villiers can be considered among the unluckiest of stars when it comes to the opportunity to grace rugby’s grandest stage. Had fate dealt him a more agreeable hand, De Villiers theoretically would have appeared in four Rugby World Cups.
Instead the reality was rather different. Within five minutes of his debut for South Africa in 2002 he suffered a major knee injury keeping him out of contention for 2003. The 2007 tournament triumph was bittersweet as he played only in the Boks’ opening match, tearing a bicep against Samoa. And then four years later in New Zealand, a series of injuries kept his involvement mainly on the bench.
The latest injury to befall him was a broken jaw sustained in South Africa’s morale-boosting triumph over Samoa. A disappointing end to an international career that deserved more. Yet, De Villiers’ departure from England, sad as it may seem, could prove a blessing for the Boks, and maybe not even one in disguise.
Many rugby fans within the Rainbow Nation were slightly irked by his place in the squad in the first place, given his lack of rugby due to a separate jaw injury and overall poor form. Then there was his presence as an automatic selection in the XV as captain, unjustified and only on name rather than merit.
Sad see Jean De Villiers retiring from International rugby @Springboks …someone I’ve watched and learnt a lot from for years..great career
— Jamie Roberts (@Jamiehuwroberts) September 28, 2015
His performance against Japan – granted he wasn’t the only one – intensified the criticism. De Villiers appeared off the pace, lacking in strength, power and poise. But Heyneke Meyer persisted and picked him again for Samoa. The performance was much improved but the old De Villiers still wasn’t there. He looked a shell of the player he once was.
Now, the decision to field him against Scotland has been taken out of Meyer’s hands but South Africa are blessed with three of the best young centres in the world in Damian de Allende, 23, Jesse Kriel, 21, and De Villiers’ replacement Jan Serfontein, 22.
With no De Villiers the options are more than a little exciting. The former two are the real deal – Kriel perhaps the most naturally talented player in the entire squad – and should be paired for Saturday’s crunch pool clash against Scotland, adding even more vibrancy to a backline that already includes Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Handre Pollard and Willie le Roux.
With the Japan defeat now behind them, the Springboks look very dangerous indeed.
Wales’ stunning Twickenham triumph over England should go down as the Dragons’ greatest ever victory on foreign soil. It is perhaps one of their greatest ever.
It’s arguably right up there with the most famous of Welsh wins; 1999’s 32-31 Five Nations triumph against England at Wembley, immortalised by Scott Gibbs’ jinking run to the line and Neil Jenkins’ nerveless conversion; the historic 29-19 win, a first ever, against South Africa later that same year and the 13-8 defeat of the mighty All Blacks in 1953.
In the back-yard of their most bitter rivals, on the grandest stage of all at the Rugby World Cup and with a myriad of injuries both before and during the contest that defied belief and left them completely written off, Wales achieved the virtually impossible.
But now they must back it up by emerging from the Group of Death – arguably an even more gargantuan task.
As commendable as victory was, do Wales really want to be known for following that up with a limp defeat to Fiji? If they fail from here last weekend’s win will be rendered largely redundant. What should serve them well today is how, at the opposite end of the spectrum to Saturday’s 28-25 victory, the Pacific Islanders encapsulate one of Welsh rugby’s lowest ebbs.
Four of the current squad played in the 38-34 defeat in Nantes eight years ago that saw Gareth Jenkins’ men defeated in their final group game and dumped out of the 2007 World Cup.
Those painful memories will still surely be fresh in the minds of the quartet of Alun Wyn Jones, Gethin Jenkins and James Hook, all of them having played the full 80 minutes that day, as well as scrum-half Mike Phillips who came on as a replacement.
Even their horrendously long list of injuries is no excuse and despite adding the influential Scott Williams and Hallam Amos to the casualty list, it’s encouraging to see Warren Gatland selecting a strong side for Fiji’s visit to the Millennium Stadium.
The game is sure to be a bruising encounter against the physical Fijians and Wales’ medical team must be dreading another busy day at the office.
What a wonderful touch from Wales as Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb present the team jerseys ahead of the Fiji game. pic.twitter.com/Q9EOe5l1yh
— EatSleepRugby (@eatsleeprugby) September 30, 2015
Williams and Amos are gone but full-back Liam Williams remains in the 31-man squad, although he is left out of the match-day squad and is adhering to concussion protocols following his withdrawal against England.
With that in mind the stage is set for the electric Matthew Morgan to shine. The diminutive Bristol back has been likened to Shane Williams, with forwards coach Robin McBryde saying he possesses the same sort of magic, while Newport Gwent Dragons centre Tyler Morgan has been described as “explosive” by the man who will partner him in midfield, Jamie Roberts.
Winger Alex Cuthbert also has a point to prove following a woeful spell of form but there is no denying his talent, 15 tries in 37 Tests speaks volumes for his quality.
It’s also another chance for Dan Biggar to stamp his authority on this Wales team and the World Cup. The Ospreys fly-half was perfect from the tee last week, and the rest of the tournament is a tremendous opportunity for him to fully emerge from Leigh Halfpenny’s shadow and show just what a talent he is in his own right.
Biggar is not short on confidence and a deep run for Wales in the tournament from this point rests at his feet.
Whereas those outside the camp see yet another player going down as another reason to count Wales out, injuries seem to have galvanized this squad.
Let’s not forget also that aside from the cacophony of absentees in the back line, Wales still look tremendously strong up front, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Taulupe Faletau, Jones and Jenkins their bedrock.
Belief will course through this squad with a third straight win and set up a mouth-watering winner takes all Pool A decider against Australia in nine days’ time.
Victory against the old enemy might well be enough for some Welsh fans but it will count for nothing if they don’t press on and make it into the knockout stages.
South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer sprang a surprise in naming scrum-half Fourie du Preez as captain for their key World Cup game against Scotland on Saturday.
Du Preez, 33, takes the role vacated by centre Jean de Villiers, who retired from international rugby after suffering a second broken jaw in six weeks against Samoa last Saturday.
He becomes the 56th Springbok captain and got Meyer’s vote as vice-captain veteran lock Victor Matfield misses the Pool B game in Newcastle because of a hamstring strain.
Du Preez beat the likes of Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw to the post when Matfield was ruled out. All have captained their domestic teams back home. Du Preez only captained a Super Rugby team back in 2008.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 30, 2015
“Fourie has been one of the best scrum-halves in world rugby for a long time, but he also understands the game better than most players and is a tactical genius,” said Meyer.
“He will know exactly what is needed on Saturday when we continue our fight to keep our World Cup dream alive.”
After the disaster of losing 34-32 to Japan in their opening Pool B game, Meyer has made only three changes to the starting line-up that bounced back with a big 46-6 win over Samoa.
Jesse Kriel will link up in the centres with Damian De Allende in place of de Villiers, while Lodewyk de Jager takes over from Matfield at lock. Bismarck du Plessis returns as hooker in place of Adriaan Strauss, who is on the replacements’ bench. Jan Serfontein, who flew from South Africa to replace De Villiers, goes straight onto the bench.
Meyer said losing two experienced captains – Matfield being the other – in one week had been a severe blow but the squad could cope.
“Schalk (Burger) stood in on the last occasion that Jean and Victor were both absent earlier this season before Fourie had returned to fitness,” he said.
“They are both great leaders who go about their work in contrasting ways and I think they will work extremely well in tandem.”
The loss to Japan was the biggest shock in World Cup history but South Africa are quietly confident they can still succeed in the tournament.
“The performance against Samoa was much better, but Scotland have been impressive in their victories over Japan and the USA,” said Meyer.