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13 JUNE 2012
Jean de Villiers - The right man for the job
by Liz McGregor

Springbok captain, Jean de Villiers.
The first time I interviewed Heyneke Meyer, in early 2010, shortly after he had returned to the Bulls, he told me a parable. There are two tables of people eating a meal: one in heaven, one in hell. In heaven, they are having a great time: chatting and laughing. In hell, they are pale and silent. If you look closely at the picture, you will see that in heaven, each diner is selecting the choicest bit of food and giving it to his neighbour. In hell, delicious food is piled before each person but attached to their hands are knives and forks that are too long to allow them to transfer the food to their mouths. The message is simple: they had grabbed the best for themselves and so they were doomed to starve. If you help the other guy first, the whole system benefits.

Meyer was explaining his criteria for selection: the man before the player. For him, character trumps talent. First you have to find the right material and then you shape it to whatever you need.

What he looks for then, primarily, is a giver rather than a taker. Second comes emotional resilience: the ability to keep bouncing back — after injury, after defeat, after criticism. Never, ever, ever give up.

I thought of that conversation recently when Meyer, now Springbok coach, announced Jean de Villiers as his captain. It has been interpreted as pandering to provincialism: a sop to the Stormers, because so few of them were selected for the Bok squad. And that Fourie du Preez was Meyer’s first choice, until he made himself unavailable.

I think Meyer’s motivation went deeper than that and De Villiers is, in fact, a much better choice.

Meyer has said that the man he appoints as captain must be an extension of himself. Much of this is presumably about subtle emotional connections, not clear to the outsider. But, as in any organisation, the temptation for those in charge is to surround themselves with those most like them, in culture, language, gender and race. Du Preez makes a likelier first choice then: he is a creation of Meyer’s. He went to Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool, from where Meyer recruited him directly after matric. He has grown up with Meyer and been an integral part of Meyer’s regeneration of the Bulls over the past decade.

The Bulls’ dominance in the Springboks over the past decade meant Meyer’s influence spread. Du Preez attributes the Springboks’ success up to 2009 to Meyer. "A lot of our guys went on to play for the Springboks," he told me, "and I believe that we brought that winning rugby to the Springboks. Rugby-wise and character-wise, Heyneke imprinted his winning way on us."

But Du Preez, in the end, was not available and Meyer appointed De Villiers instead. How does De Villiers then measure up, according to Meyer’s criteria? Can he be considered an extension of the coach’s persona? On the face of it, yes. De Villiers is white, Afrikaans-speaking and, like both Meyer and Du Preez, staunchly Christian. Du Preez’s father-in-law is a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. De Villiers is a fervent and lifelong member of the same church.

But he is also a clever and imaginative man and, above all, he has the capacity for reinvention. Born with great advantages — good-looking and a brilliant athlete — initially life came fairly easy to him.

He went to Paarl Gimnasium, with its top coaches and powerful rugby structure. Every team wanted him. He always started. Then he was hit by a series of dreadful injuries. The pain and anxiety of successive operations followed by tedious rehabilitation in the back rooms of rugby, not knowing if he would ever be able to regain what he had lost.

The most devastating setbacks were his early ejection from the past two World Cups because of injury.

In 2010, he signed up with Munster and one of his reasons for choosing Ireland over a more lucrative French team was that there were no South Africans there.

A rugby career is short, he told me, and he wanted to take as much from it as he could while he could: to grow as a person and learn skills he could take to his next job.

Apart from his girlfriend, Marlie — now his wife — this Afrikaans boy from Paarl removed himself from everything that was familiar. Stripped of his usual context, he must have had to look at himself anew. All his assumptions about himself and his place in the world must have been challenged.

He told me the racial and language diversity of Western Province helped him feel at home at Munster, where the team was made up of a motley bunch of nationalities: Irish, French, New Zealander and Australian. These differences fed the Irish "craic", or banter, and that is what differentiates De Villiers now and makes him one of the journalists’ favourites: he has a lovely dry wit, which helps leaven press conferences. His English is fluent.

One of the reasons former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers hung on to John Smit as captain for so long was that he was a unifying force respected by everyone. You had the powerful Bulls camp, the Sharks, the Stormers, all with different cultures, both on the field and off. Frequently, they had to play together shortly after beating the hell out of each other the week before in a local derby.

The last time the Springboks played, at that fateful quarterfinal in Wellington last October, SA fielded a team with 836 caps, which made it the most capped starting line-up in Test history. In other words, a lot of very experienced men with their own ideas of how things should work. It took a very strong captain to get buy-in to the game plan from every single member of that squad.

De Villiers is practised in managing diversity and in bringing people of different backgrounds together.

Munster very much wanted him to stay on. But at that point, Peter de Villiers had said he would not select overseas-based players for the World Cup squad. And that was now Jean de Villiers’s only goal: to play all the way through a World Cup at last.

In the 2003 World Cup, he was injured in the last warm-up game before the team left for Australia. In the 2007 World Cup, he tore his biceps in the first game and was out for the rest. Last year, he injured a rib cartilage in the opening game against Wales.

I watched him roam up and down the edge of the field as the team played on without him. Dressed in the elegant long green regulation Springbok coat against the biting wind, he cut a forlorn figure, so clearly desperate to be back on the field.

During the Stormers’ Super Rugby Australasian tour this month, he and the other senior players had to help nurture their crop of 20-year-olds: part father, part coach. Only a giver could have made that work.

When he had to go home, again injured, halfway through the tour, I thought that maybe part of him would be relieved. His wife gave birth to their first child at the end of last year. He must be missing them. Surely the pull of a more settled home life must be strong? But at the first press conference at the Stormers’ High Performance Centre in Bellville, before their game against the Cheetahs, for which he had been cleared to play, his elation was apparent. It’s so hard, he said, to be sitting at home when the only place you want to be is on the field.

Never, ever, ever give up, Meyer says. Well, De Villiers certainly scores there. 

McGregor is author of "Touch, Pause, Engage! Exploring the Heart of South African Rugby" (Jonathan Ball Publishers). She is working on a book about the Springboks.
Useful resources:

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