Jean de Villiers - Last stab at RWC glory

Barnaby Read 02:23 08/04/2015
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Modern great: Jean de Villiers.

A World Cup should be a chance for the planet’s finest players, teams and coaches to test themselves against their global counterparts . For Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, this has not been the case.

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One of the most distinguished players in rugby union, De Villiers is a man with more than 100 Test caps and possesses inherent leadership qualities that make him one of sport’s finest role models. Yet he has played just four World Cup matches.

A torn bicep in South Africa’s opening fixture of their ultimately victorious 2007 campaign ruled him out for the rest of the competition, while in 2011 he watched  them crash out in the quarter-finals, largely from the bench. 

This year, the centre’s dream of influencing a World Cup is again in jeopardy after suffering a serious knee injury in the final Test of last season, a 12-6 defeat to Wales in Cardiff. 

At 34, and having undergone a full reconstruction of the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments last December, it had been thought one final hurrah was out of the question.

But with the Springboks’ World Cup opener against Japan less than six months away, De Villiers is determined to be more than a spectator  

“It was quite a big surgery but the recovery is going really well,” De Villiers says while visiting the Dubai Exiles at the city’s Sevens Stadium. 

“I’m on target and hopefully I can be ready, or at least be up for selection for the World Cup later this year. That’s the goal and what I’m working towards – at this stage I see no reason why I won’t be able to make it.

“I’ve had some bad luck regarding World Cups but I’m at the end of my career now and it’s obviously the last opportunity I will have to play a part in one – I’m really looking forward to doing that.”

But De Villiers’ motives are less about egotism and more about esprit de corps; he is a man who brims with pride when recalling the players he has battled alongside.  And some battles there have been. 

He remains surprisingly mobile despite his body having been ravaged by injuries over the years, the scars running around his knees a reminder of the sacrifices he has made for that green and gold shirt. 

“I’ve been a part of this current group of Springboks and the individuals that have been part of it have been fantastic on the field, but they’ve also grown to be my friends and we really have a great team culture at the moment,” he explains.  

“I would like to celebrate with them if we can get success at the World Cup.  I definitely think we’re good enough to. 

“I think we can beat any team in the world on any given day and that excites me. You take part in competitions to be able to win them. You don’t just go to a World Cup to fill the numbers, you want to be the best and anything less than that won’t be called a success. 

“It’s amazing to see where we were in 2012 when obviously it was a new coach and me being the new captain and how it’s progressed to now. The journey’s been fantastic. Hopefully the destination will be the same.”

That journey has by no means been easy but following the quarter-final defeat to Australia four years ago, South Africa have blossomed under De Villiers. They have lost just twice to northern hemisphere nations (Ireland and Wales last 
December), with Australia beaten four times in six meetings. 

De Villiers also led his side to victory over New Zealand in October last year, although the All Blacks have won the other five fixtures during his reign as captain.

The former Munster man, currently looking for a team after his contract with Western Province Stormers ended, sees their victory over the Kiwis, but also the defeats to Ireland and Wales, as a sign of what’s to come this autumn.

De Villiers getting stuck in against England

For him, an ultra-competitive tournament is in store, although he rejects the notion that the northern hemisphere sides have an advantage with it being played in England and Wales.

“I definitely think we can beat New Zealand,” he adds. “We’re looking at six, maybe even seven teams that can actually win this World Cup and are good enough to beat any team on the day.

“It’s going to be a fantastic World Cup and I’m really looking forward to it. A lot gets said about northern hemisphere versus southern hemisphere but it comes down to the conditions. 

“When it’s raining in South Africa you’re not going to throw the ball around, if it’s dry you’re going to do that – and it’s the same if you’re playing at Twickenham. It’s the same for everyone and I don’t think anyone gets extra benefits from where it’s played.”

There’s no question South Africa will be better placed to relive that 2007 glory with their captain at the helm. It was a distant thought four months ago when De Villiers was stretchered off the Millennium Stadium pitch with severe damage to the ligaments in his left knee.

That he is even close to a return to the national team is testament to the work he and the medical staff have put in since the injury.

And with the tournament now tantalisingly close, De Villiers is confident he has the right support team to thrust him into  contention for that Pool B curtain-raiser against the Japanese at Brighton’s Amex Stadium. 

“I’m training on my own as I’m not with a team at the moment but there’s a medical group that’s helping me with that and that’s a 4-6 hour process a day,” he says.

“I’m strengthening the leg again and then getting back to running, and then the agility and mobility and of course getting back on to the pitch. I’m still probably another 3-4 months away but very happy with that and looking forward to just getting better day after day.”

Incentives don’t get much bigger than a World Cup swansong, and the tournament would surely be richer for the presence of one of rugby’s true gentlemen.

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