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.
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.
i miss jean de villiers
— la flame (@el_teee_) April 1, 2015
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.”
So good to see that Jean de Villiers could be back from his serious knee injury in time for the rugby championship. pic.twitter.com/ixYqPioO3M
— EatSleepRugby (@Eat_Sleep_Rugby) March 23, 2015
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.
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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The European Champions Cup quarter-finals, by and large, went with the form book, although there were a fair few thrills and spills along the way. Here are five things we learned from an enthralling weekend of European rugby…
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1. Forgotten man Abendanon gives Clermont bite
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but given what occurred at the Stade Marcel-Michelin it seems ridiculous that Northampton went into their contest with Clermont believing they could win.
Saints have streaked clear at the top of the Premiership, while their hosts had been stripped of international half-backs Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra.
But as Clermont powered into a 27-0 half-time lead it quickly became apparent that this was not going to be their day. Perhaps last week’s walloping of 14-man Wasps had not been the perfect warm-up after all.
The hosts were undone spectacularly by Saracens at the semi-final stage last season and played with the vim of a team that wants to put that right this year.
Fly-half Brock James, in for the injured Lopez, was clearly in the mood to prove he could still conduct play on this stage, and was imperious kicking 17 points.
But it was another forgotten man (internationally at least) that stole the show. Nick Abendanon has played just twice for England, both caps coming in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup, but still only 28 he has shown in Europe this season that he could yet have an international future.
On Saturday the South Africa-born full-back made a mammoth 145 metres in scoring once and setting up a further two tries, with his run away score in the second half highlighting the gulf in class between the two sides.
After the game, Abendanon described an England recall as a “dream”. Having narrowly missed out on two World Cup squads in the past, could it be third time lucky in 2015?
— Will Carling (@willcarling) April 5, 2015
2. Saracens still the English side best equipped to do well in Europe
On a weekend in which sides from England were found wanting, Saracens proved they remain the Premiership’s safest bet on the continent.
Despite making up half of the teams left in the competition, it was always going be tough for English sides to progress simply because all four were playing away from home.
However, that does not account for what happened, with Bath, Northampton and to a lesser extent Wasps all playing with a naivety that gets you nowhere when faced with the best in Europe.
Flying in the face of this were Saracens, a team who have almost been forgotten about domestically as Northampton, Bath, Exeter et al have stolen the headlines.
Yet Mark McCall’s side remain one of the smartest in Europe – currently second in the Premiership after all – and displayed as much in Paris on Sunday to clinch a dramatic win.
This was not the kind of all-action performance that saw them past Harlequins at Wembley last weekend, instead it was sensible as Sarries played in the right areas and refused to cave in even when Racing Metro got their power game going.
The way the side coped with Jim Hamilton’s yellow card was admirable, while Alex Goode and Marcelo Bosch both showed great composure once Charlie Hodgson had ceded kicking duties.
In short, unlike Saints, Bath or Wasps, Saracens know what is needed to win games at this stage of the competition. Now for a re-match with Clermont, although they are sure to have it tougher in Saint-Etienne than they did at Twickenham 12 months ago.
Bosch on the last kick: “I felt really confident in that moment. I said why not and the rest is history.” pic.twitter.com/AVnljWTAPv
— Saracens Rugby Club (@Saracens) April 5, 2015
3. Wasps are definitely a team moving in the right direction
It is an often trotted out phrase in professional sports that a team will learn more in defeat than they will when winning. And while no-one connected to Wasps will have woken up on Monday morning feeling ecstatic, there is a lot of evidence to suggest Dai Young’s men are building something that could turn out to be quite special.
Wasps were the best team in the second half in Toulon, and had they not allowed their hosts to build such a commanding lead may well have caused a huge upset.
Regardless of the result that is quite some feat for a club whose very existence was in doubt prior to their controversial move to Coventry.
However, since relocating their playing operation to the midlands something remarkable has begun to happen. Without wanting to resort to a woeful pun, the club have created a buzz in their new home and have been able to turn that momentum into results.
Moreover, Young has been able to introduce a couple academy players, giving Elliot Daly a more prominent role and handing Alex Lozowski a start in France ahead of Andy Goode.
The experience the young fly-half gained in Toulon could prove telling as Young attempts to build a squad that can challenge consistently at home and in Europe.
Of course, no-one wants to lose and the journey home would not have been a happy one, but the signs are that this season’s trip to the quarters will not be a rarity.
Massive respect to Dai Young + @WaspsRugby team 4 an outstanding performance + 4 what you’re all doing for rugby. Have a great end of season
— Jonny Wilkinson (@JonnyWilkinson) April 5, 2015
4. Discipline wins knockout games, not tries
There could and probably should be two Premiership sides left in the Champions Cup, but while Bath and fly-half George Ford provided the spark at the Aviva Stadium, it was Leinster who were left celebrating at the end.
Ford’s try in Dublin was majestic, and he did brilliantly to set up captain Stuart Hooper too, but his side’s first-half ill discipline – allied with Jerome Garces’ controversial late call – meant they were unable to get the game over the line.
In terms of attacking stats, Bath dominated their hosts – they gained more metres, beat more defenders, created more clean breaks and offloaded over three times as much.
However, Leinster had the edge at the set piece and crucially in discipline. Bath conceded more turnovers and penalties and it was the shots at goal afforded to Ian Madigan in the first half that proved pivotal.
Madigan may wobble under pressure but he is the tournament’s top scorer this season and was allowed to find his kicking groove by some pretty amenable visitors.
The 15-5 half-time deficit proved to be a mountain Bath could not climb, especially as Leinster refused to give away penalties inside Ford’s range.
It was the England No10 that lit up the Aviva, but his side will have to learn to be more streetwise if they are to go further next season.
Bit tighter in the end than they would have liked but another semi final for Leinster. Well done lads. #nottheworstpoorseasonisit
— Brian O’Driscoll (@BrianODriscoll) April 4, 2015
5. Governing bodies need to get tough at the right time
Coming so soon after Nathan Hughes was banned for three weeks for an accident, it was disappointing to see James Horwill get off a lot more lightly for deliberately trying to injure an opponent.
Of course it is difficult to compare a punishment dished out by the RFU with the one-week ban given to Harlequins-bound Horwill by SANZAR, but globally the sport needs to get tough on the right crimes.
Rebels prop Paul Alo-Emile is lucky that Horwill’s punch did not connect with him cleanly, instead grazing his own player, but that should not make it any less of a crime.
The former Wallabies captain steamed into the ruck with clear intent to harm his opponent. It was disappointing therefore to hear the commentary team initially attempt to downplay the incident as just one of those things that happens on a rugby field.
The game needs to get away from this attitude as had Horwill connected with Alo-Emile’s head as he intended then the front-rower could have ended up with a serious concussion.
That issue is rightly high on the agenda at the moment, but if World Rugby want to get serious about tackling the problem then they must ensure governing bodies get tough on these incidents.
Otherwise what message does it send out?
Saracens victory over Racing Metro in Paris was built on determination as much as anything else, displayed here by Marcelo Bosch’s brilliant try-saving tackle on Argentina team-mate Juan Imhoff.
Wasps have been challenged to launch a new dynasty of European success when they face Toulon in their Champions Cup quarter-final today.
Mission impossible confronts the Premiership underdogs on the Cote d’Azur where the star-studded champions are plotting their route to an unprecedented third successive title.
Losing wings Christian Wade and Sailosi Tagicakibau to hamstring injuries and powerful number eight Nathan Hughes to suspension has only heightened the sense that Wasps’ return to the knockout stages will end in France.
But director of rugby Dai Young insists they are capable of stunning Toulon, evoking the club’s European glory days of last decade while declaring it is time for the new generation to leave their calling card on the continent.
4. Wasps have genuine chance in Toulon as French side have no goalkicker. @ChampionsCup. This could be the game that launches Elliot Daly.
— Will Greenwood (@WillGreenwood) April 3, 2015
“We’re very proud and respectful for the club’s history and tradition, but we have a determined group now who want to start making their own mark,” Young said.
“We want people to be talking about this Wasps team rather than referring back to the other guys all the time. No one expected us to get out of the group, so in a lot of people’s eyes this is a shot to nothing.”
Captain James Haskell, who returns to the back row after being rested against Northampton last weekend, insists Wasps are in familiar territory.
He said: “We are underdogs against Toulon because of their pedigree, but I firmly believe we have the ability to get a result down there.”
Today’s second quarter-final sees last season’s runners-up Saracens visit Racing Metro with scrumhalf Richard Wigglesworth leading the team in the injury enforced absence of lock Alistair Hargreaves, partnering Charlie Hodgson at half-back.
Saracens are unbeaten in their last five matches and have only lost one game in their last nine. Their French opponents were the only unbeaten club in the pool stages, coming out of their group with Northampton Saints, the Ospreys and Benetton Treviso with 24 points thanks to five wins and just one draw.
“We are in very good spirits,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall. “We have watched Racing a lot over the last week, especially their win at Franklin’s Gardens, and they were very good that day.”