When you think of Springbok rugby captain, Jean de Villiers, your thoughts immediately turn to his numerous disappointments and heartbreaks over the course of an otherwise glittering career.
From being injured on his Springbok debut to having three World Cups curtailed for the same reason, it has been a rough road indeed. Yet despite all the setbacks, De Villiers stands tall with some of the greats of his era.
Respected throughout the rugby world for not only his talent, but, almost more importantly, for the man he has become over his long journey from rookie to Springbok captain, he has more than 100 test matches behind his name.
His sheer enthusiasm for the game has never deteriorated as the years passed, and neither has his utter determination to achieve victory.
Many were surprised when, in 2012, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer handed the captaincy to De Villiers as many had expected him to hand it to one of his former player’s protégés at his beloved Blue Bulls. But Meyer was looking for something specific in his captain, and he found it in De Villiers.
It was the first time De Villiers and Meyer had ever worked together, and, according to De Villiers, they had only had “four or five conversations before”. Yet their relationship seemed to simply fall into place—both men, despite coming from different provinces, had very similar thought processes when it came to the game they loved.
From the beginning of Meyer’s tenure, a lot of emphasis had been placed on off-field behaviour by the players; something De Villiers agrees should be the case. “Whether we are playing a game, are on a flight, training or just doing general things, we have to behave in a way we can be proud of.”
He continues: “A lot of kids look up to the people who pull on that Springbok jersey and they need to see a person behave in a respectful manner. Being a Springbok is far more than just playing on a Saturday afternoon.”
Ask De Villiers who his favourite rugby player of all time is and without hesitation he answers: Danie Gerber, who he believes is the finest rugby player South Africa has ever produced.
De Villiers is a self confessed “sports-nut” but rugby has always been top of the list. He says he can’t remember life without it. His childhood was filled with some of the finest moments in South African rugby history, including attending the opening game of the 1995 Rugby World Cup against Australia, a tournament the Springboks, of course, went on to win. He also managed to attend the second post isolation game at Newlands in 1992, against the Wallabies, which he says was a “great experience, even though we lost”.
Other fond memories include the 1998 Tri Nations victory over New Zealand at Kings Park “where we scored something like three tries in the final 15 minutes and went on to win the competition”.
His debut, which ended in injury, is still one of his most treasured memories, as well as his first try and first game at Newlands. And who can forget that first ever try in the green and gold when he intercepted the ball and sprinted across half the field in that famous Springbok victory over the All Blacks?
Despite all these occasions, De Villiers says his most special day on a rugby field was during his 101st test for the Springboks against the Wallabies.
Not only did he score two tries but he got to run out onto the field with his two daughters. His wife, who was pregnant with their third child and his first son, was also there.
When De Villiers was appointed captain of the Springboks, he was only given the job for the first three tests against England. A lot of criticism had been handed out to former Springbok coach, Pieter de Villiers over his decision to hand then captain John Smit the captaincy for four years, and Meyer was not going to follow the same path.
After the three tests, De Villiers was given the job for the rest of the season and Meyer announced that he would make an annual decision on the captaincy as he wanted to make sure that the man chosen always earned his place in the team.
“We’ve come a long way since then. I think he’s grown to trust me, and I definitely trust and respect him tremendously. For a team to be successful everyone has to work together very well and I think we do that—we both believe in what we want to achieve and this is important. I am his link to the team, and he is mine to management,” says De Villiers.
He continues: “You know it’s funny how things happen in life, people just get put together and things just work out. I’m very fortunate to have gotten to know him on a much deeper level.”
Being two different people, from different unions, one could be forgiven for thinking the relationship would struggle, but De Villiers says he never had to adjust the way he thought or his leadership style.
“I’ve tweaked my style here and there for team purposes, but nothing major. The bulk of how we think the game should be played is very similar—we most definitely don’t always agree, but we are open about it and we always come to the conclusion that suits the team best.”
He says the sudden elevation from provincial captaincy to the national captaincy is big. “There is a lot more pressure, expectations and duties, but I was very fortunate to have become captain after playing 70 odd tests. I also had the advantage of playing under John Smit, who was one of the great captains. At least I knew what I was getting into, so I had it much easier than someone getting the job after five or so games. In that respect I was very fortunate.”
He says being Springbok rugby captain entails far more than “the 80 minutes you spend on the field. You actually get to make a difference, put smiles on kids’ faces and you can see the difference you make—you get put on a platform to change lives, which is a great responsibility and such a privilege. There is no greater gift than making people happy and getting them to enjoy themselves”.
Is he perhaps the unluckiest rugby player ever? Speaking to him, you wouldn’t think so, but his history shows he must be. He missed the 2007 World Cup victory through injury, and experienced an agonising 2011 exit too.
He was injured during his Springbok debut too, and again at the end of 2014, an injury which most observers feared would put him out of the 2015 World Cup. But, in true De Villiers style, he has fought back, and looks set to once again beat the odds and fulfil his dream of playing in, and hopefully winning a World Cup. More importantly, he will then be allowed to retire on his own terms.
Having said that, at the time of writing, De Villiers had been out of the game for six weeks … his participation in the 2015 event was in serious doubt.
De Villiers always tends to put an optimistic slant on things and says the injury sustained during his debut was “the best thing that could have happened to me. I learnt so much about myself during that time, about what’s important, about the important people in my life and about my core values. I truly believe that all the injuries I’ve had have played a big role in my career and life. Without that debut injury I don’t think I’d be sitting here today as Springbok captain.
“Through all this, I hope there is some awareness of the fact that normal people face challenges, obstacles if you will, every day, but you can either choose to lie down and say it is just too much, or you can get up and fight— I’m the ‘glass half full’ type of guy. There is always something positive in any situation.”
While injuries are never an enjoyable part of any sport, many believe that fateful November afternoon against Wales last year was, in retrospect, a good omen for the country’s rugby captain. They reason that, unlike New Zealand, South Africa does not have a central contracting system, which means that our top rugby players’ game times during the season, at provincial level, cannot be dictated by the South African Rugby Union. This, in essence, means their provinces can play them week in and week out, without getting the rest they ultimately require to maintain an optimum level of performance. De Villiers had played rugby all year round without much rest until the inevitable injury struck.
Due to the injury he was forced to rest, or rather forced to rest from actual rugby while focussing on his conditioning ahead of the World Cup, which could prove extremely beneficial to the Springboks come World Cup kick off—if, of course, he gets to play.
“It has given me the opportunity to do conditioning on my entire body, not just my knee—so all those little niggles you play with have had a chance to recover too.
“The difference between this injury and the rest is that it happened well in advance of the World Cup. The others have come either just before, or during the World Cup, which left me with no time to get fit again, but this one was different. I’m ready, I feel good, now I must just earn my place in the squad.”
Another positive that came out of that injury against Wales is that De Villiers’ son was born two days later, which allowed him to spend more time with his family than he would have been able to with a full Super 15 schedule.
One point De Villiers is clear on is that he is ready to go to the World Cup, however, being the man he is, he wants his performance to warrant his selection. Meyer has said, since his tenure began, that he is loyal to performance and De Villiers stands by this.
“While I’m fit and ready to go, I must now put in the performances to put myself in the mix for the 31 man squad—one cannot be captain if you are not good enough to make the starting 15.”
De Villiers is no stranger to criticism, but he adopts a somewhat sanguine approach to it. “It is actually quite simple: you cannot take everyone’s opinion seriously, and you must ensure that you surround yourself with people you trust, people who are true and honest with you. I’m not the type of guy who doesn’t read negative publicity. I don’t avoid newspapers. I think there is a reason behind everything; it’s about taking the positives out of a situation. As a player you sometimes know you’ve played poorly, but it’s not nice to read about it.
“You get angry at times, but then you have to take yourself out of that situation and think about it holistically. Once you do that you realise you didn’t do this right and then you look for ways to improve.”
De Villiers has now played over 100 tests for the Springboks and with that many tests comes plenty of experience—experience that is often disregarded by the media and supporters when a player has a few poor games. But it is something every coach values above so much else, so why do supporters regularly turn their backs?
De Villiers feels it is a matter of opinion. Experience is gained “by making mistakes and then learning from them so that you don’t do the same thing in a similar situation again. Experience is no different to anything else in life, like a boardroom. When there is a big decision to be made at a corporate company, you send in your senior executives, or would you prefer to send in a first year novice to close a big deal?
“In rugby it is obviously very important to get that mix right between youth and experience—as an experienced player you still have to be able to put in the performances to warrant your selection.”
The same goes for the coach. De Villiers says that as a player you must realise that “to become Springbok coach you have to have done something right. You have to have achieved something; otherwise you would not have gotten the job.”
For De Villiers, experience has taught him a lot. Injuries have taken their toll on his body, but as many a sportsman knows, injuries affect one’s mind more than one’s body. On this, De Villiers says that mentally it has become much easier to deal with, and because he has a strong base, with a family and trusted people around him, it doesn’t affect him that much anymore. But, he adds, as his body has become older “it has become tougher to physically recover”.
When Leadership magazine spoke to Meyer last year, he was very passionate about leadership in the team environment and said that it is one of the most important factors in a group. He referred to De Villiers as “a credit to the country”.
It is easy to see why Meyer puts his faith in De Villiers. It is as though they talk from the same mouth, they are so in sync. And De Villiers speaks just as passionately as his coach about the “leadership core” within the Springbok group.
De Villiers believes leadership should be shown through all walks of life and on a daily basis. Being a Springbok as well as being a leader doesn’t start and end with the 80 minutes on the field—it is in how you behave, how you treat people, how you lead, but also, how you are able to follow instructions.
“Being a leader is not just about telling others what to do, it is also shown in how you follow instructions from the coach, management or captain, and how you react to what is being said. That is also leadership.”
He is more than willing to hand credit to the leadership core in the Bok setup. “I cannot do everything, nor do I know everything, so I need people within the team/squad that can help with certain aspects. As an example, I know very little about the scrum and what goes on there, so I need them to communicate to me so that I can speak to the referee if need be,” De Villiers says.
He adds: “To be able to be a successful leader you have to be able to delegate responsibilities and trust those that you delegate to, something I am very lucky with because we have built a great group of people who I trust will never let me down or back out when the going gets tough.”
De Villiers believes that this sort of environment helps youngsters or new players that come into the squad adapt as the leadership core within the group is strong, but it also allows players the freedom to be themselves, “within boundaries of course”.
“You see, we have a Springbok protocol, a way we believe a Springbok player should behave. We are role models to many of our youth and need to behave in a manner that sets a good example for them. I’ll say it again: you are not just a Springbok when you wear that jersey. Once you are selected you’ll always be one and we are trying to instil this culture, that no matter where you are, you always behave like a Springbok should.”
What has been clear over the last four years is the composure shown by coach and captain when put under pressure at press conferences. Not once has Meyer or De Villiers complained publicly about decisions made by referees or been anything but respectful in interviews, even when asked some tough questions under scrutiny. This is a credit to them, the Springboks and South Africa as a whole.
De Villiers says that one of the most difficult parts of being captain is treating everyone equally. “There are very experienced players within the squad and it is only natural for one to treat them differently in some aspects, but I try to treat everyone equally all of the time. However, I am lucky that our senior players are very professional and don’t cause many headaches, which makes my job that much easier.”
On the surface, rugby is a very simple game, but all coaches have different ways and philosophies when approaching it. They believe the game should be played in a certain manner, but De Villiers doesn’t believe that as a captain it is that difficult to adapt to different coaches.
He says that it is all about being able to adapt and understand exactly what the coach wants. Communication is vital as you don’t want there to be any “gaps or grey areas when you run out onto the field”. Once that is fine, everything falls into place.
Coming to the end of your sporting career can be a daunting prospect. What happens after rugby? De Villiers is almost at the end of his outstanding career and admits that if he makes the World Cup squad, that will be his last rugby in a Springbok jersey.
However, he has not figured it all out yet. The last few months have been all about recovery in time for the World Cup, but he has a few thoughts regarding what might become of him once he has hung up his boots for the last time and will no longer be seen running out onto the hallowed turf at his beloved Newlands—or anywhere else, for that matter.
He spent a year at Stellenbosch University, which he says with a very broad smile; “helped my social skills a lot”. But since that year it has been all about rugby for De Villiers.
“What happens after rugby is a big question mark for me. I don’t have a degree and all I’ve known since school has been rugby, so that is where my expertise lies.” He does believe, however, that to play rugby at the level he has you need a certain skill set other than just rugby talent, and he feels that skill set will be beneficial in the corporate world. But that’s a decision for after the World Cup.
Who knows? His future might lie with Citadel Wealth Management, currently doing a documentary on De Villiers’ miraculous recovery from his knee injury.
However, De Villiers says he would love to stay involved with rugby, be it with SuperSport or as a coach, but his experience will most definitely add value to any young player he encounters—experience we should be prepared to do anything to hold onto.
Rugby might be all De Villiers has known since school but that is not where it ends. Outside rugby, cricket is his favourite game. As we were about to begin our interview he felt compelled to pop over to the television to check the cricket score of the game between the Proteas and Bangladesh. Other than that he watches anything that is sport, and he admits it drives his wife crazy. “I think a few wives will relate to that.”
De Villiers tells of a story at the gym where he was watching the last few overs during the Cricket World Cup semi finals, and South African born New Zealander Grant Elliott hit the six that knocked the Proteas out.
“I was at the gym busy with my rehabilitation and the entire gym was standing around the TV for those final few overs. As soon as Elliott hit that six the guy alongside me turned to me and said; ‘well now you guys have to win the World Cup’.”
His toughest ever opponent was Ma’a Nonu —they have played so much rugby against each other that they have developed a mutual respect and a close friendship. Another player he admires is Brian O’Driscoll, the former Ireland centre.
A servant of SA rugby
Jean de Villiers has spent more than a decade as a Springbok, and despite numerous setbacks, has always come through a stronger player and a more mature person. He has served the Springboks and South African rugby with distinction throughout his career as a player and captain. Like many former captains, he is one we can be proud of, and although South African supporters often don’t give their sportsmen the credit they deserve, De Villiers’ numbers speak for themselves.
But it’s not just the numbers that we should look at; it is how he has carried himself through these difficult times and how he has pulled that Springbok jersey over his head with such pride on more than 100 occasions. He has never taken the easy route. He has had to go up against the odds many times, and for that alone, he deserves another crack at the World Cup.
The quick feet, the pace, and the longish blond hair might not all be there anymore, but all that has been replaced with maturity, a huge understanding of his game and a mentality that cannot be questioned.
There’s depth in our Springbok captain; he cares about more than the 80 minutes and the score line—he wants our rugby to put smiles on our South African faces.
His reply to the question on everyone’s lips—will we win the World Cup—is short and simple: “Yes, we will”.
Jean de Villiers doesn’t know the word ‘maybe’.