Jean de Villiers
JEAN DE VILLIERS
PUTTING THE BOUNCE BACK INTO SPRINGBOK RUGBY
Jean de Villiers is the most capped South African centre in Springbok history. After making his international debut more than a decade ago, he’s now the man in charge of a team looking to climb back to the top of the world rankings.
Jean, you’ve been out on the golf course. How do you go off the tee? Do you swing a club okay?
I’m very average. I enjoy playing golf even though I’m not very good. But it’s good just to get some time off and time away from rugby.
What would you say you are best at apart from rugby?
Well to this day my Mum still says that swimming was my best sport. But I enjoy cricket as well. I played at school and even though I wouldn’t say I was great at it, it’s something I really enjoy. Even now, once or twice a year we still get a game of cricket going and I enjoy it a lot.
You must be able to swim pretty well then if your Mum thinks you’re good? Or do Mum’s just think you’re good at everything?
Haha. Well there is that. But she was a swimming coach as well. I was pretty decent. But it’s a lonely sport and I enjoy the team culture. And I enjoy ball sports more than swimming so I’m quite happy I got out of that.
How far could you have gone then? Come on. Time to drop your guard. How good were you?
I was pretty good I guess. I’ve still got records at school. But you never know I suppose. I reckon with hard work I could have been decent. But I’m very happy with the route that I took and very happy with how my career has panned out.
That’s understandable. You’ve achieved what most South Africans consider to be the pinnacle of sport by captaining the Springboks. How does that feel?
I think to have played for South Africa and to have represented my country was the pinnacle of my career. Then last year to have been asked to captain my country was something that I never really envisaged. But it’s something that I have really enjoyed. It’s a tremendous honour and a privilege and it definitely is the highlight of my career so far.
Here in Australia they say captaining the test cricket team is the equivalent of being the Prime-Minister. Is it the same with being the Springboks captain in South Africa?
It’s a big job I suppose but knowing that it’s my job at the moment and living it, it doesn’t feel that big I guess because it’s me. It’s a great honour and it’s just something that I’m enjoying. I just want to enjoy every moment I get to captain my country.
Do you feel like you’ve got the nation’s support as the captain of their rugby team? There’s always going to be wolves at the door in a job like that.
Well I suppose that’s the easiest thing in the world to do is to criticise. To be a critic and sit in your armchair and say all the negatives. But I think we’ve got a fantastic country and I’ve just felt the support over the past 18 months. It’s been fantastic. I think the critics that are there are definitely in the minority and not just for me but for the entire team.
What pressure does it bring? Is there an expectation that you must win games or you’re out of a job?
Definitely the pressure is so much more. But I’m the type of captain that tries to take a lot on myself and try and have as little pressure as possible on my team. I try and do whatever is required to get the pressure off. That will always be there but it definitely increases when that “C” goes next to your name. The pressure increases and your responsibilities increase as well. My diary is definitely a lot fuller these days.
How has it changed your own game?
I think if anything the responsibility has changed my game in a positive way. I don’t think it’s affected me negatively at all. It’s something that I’ve enjoyed. And even before I was captain I always enjoyed a leadership responsibility. So it came quite naturally when I got the captaincy.
Why do you think captaincy gets to some people and not to others? Is that just a special trait some have that others don’t?
I suppose it is. And I think if you’ve gone through your career and been in those positions a couple of times it’s easier. The fact that I’d been playing 10 years of international rugby and then only recently got the captaincy definitely made it easier you know. By the time I got the captaincy I had 75 or so caps for my country so that definitely made it easier. I knew what to expect. And having played under guys like John Smit and Victor Matfield and those kind of blokes, I learnt a lot and saw what they went through. I took the positives out of how they captained their own respective teams and put my own blend to that as well.
It’s just that with some teams the best player seems to end up being captain but that’s not always the best fit is it? I mean look at cricket. Sachin Tendulkar is one of the world’s greatest ever players but also one of the worst ever captains.
I agree. And in my case I know I’m definitely not the best player on the field. Sometimes you just want your best player to play at his best and not be weighed down by any extra pressure. And sometimes an average player can lead well and make the right decisions at crucial times. It’s definitely not the case that your best player will make the best captain.
Rugby is one of those sports where the World Cup is the pinnacle. How far advanced is South Africa in its 2015 planning?
I think we took a massive stride last year with some of the players that got capped. There are a lot of great youngsters coming through and I really do truly believe that the next crop of Springboks are tremendous rugby players. I think the future of South African rugby really is looking bright. There are the guys that won the under-20’s World Cup for South Africa coming though. And by the time the next World Cup comes around they’ll be 23 or so and I think they’ll have a massive influence on that campaign. Again, it’s getting that blend right but I think it’s looking very positive for South Africa.
How much of a setback was the last World Cup because you didn’t live up to the expectations of the nation or of yourselves as a team?
Yeah it’s always disappointing when you get kicked out of a World Cup because there will always be expectations. For us we went into the tournament as the current champions and for a lot of the guys we knew it would be their last World Cup and last time playing for South Africa. A lot was at stake but those tournaments are tough and once it becomes knockout rugby you know anything can happen.
It must have been tough for you because you missed most of the successful 2007 World Cup with injury. Does that give you extra motivation to succeed in 2015?
I haven’t put my head down and said I definitely want to be there in 2015. Or even hoping that I’ll be there. At this stage I’m very realistic as to where I’m at. I’m 32 years old and for a backline player, especially a centre, it’s the wrong end of 30. Look it would be great if I get that opportunity and maybe I will if I’m playing decent enough rugby to be considered the best in my position. But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I’ve had my fair share of World Cup’s and even though all three that I have been involved in all ended quite badly, at least I’ve got a World Cup medal at home, even though I didn’t get to play in the 2007 final.
How tough was it to watch that final?
No it was fantastic watching it.
Surely you would have preferred to be out there playing though?
Yeah obviously I would have preferred to be playing but I just felt so proud to be a part of that squad and to be mentioned in the same breath as all those guys. And then to get the medal as well. To be a part of the whole build-up to the World Cup was special and winning it was great.
How bad was that injury you suffered?
Yeah I ruptured my bicep so they had to re-attach it. I was out for about four or five months.
That’s horrific. I mean you rugby players live by your guns!
Haha. Yeah it was one of those freak injuries. In rugby unfortunately injuries play a massive part.
Your coach then was Jake White. You won a World Cup under him. He’s now doing great things at the Brumbies. What is it about Jake White that makes him so successful?
He’s a good coach. He knows his rugby and I think he knows what he wants. What he does really well is he gets good people around him to work with him and I think that’s what he’s done at the Brumbies too. He’s created a culture that’s the same as the old Brumbies team that did so well in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. He’s done really well there.
His and Ewen McKenzie’s name keeps getting thrown around as possible replacement at the Wallabies for Robbie Deans. How would you feel about that as a South African if Jake was coaching Australia?
It would be tough. That would be tough to see that if it happens. But definitely he’s got the credentials to do the job. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got selected to coach them. But those three coaches that you mentioned are all quality coaches and I think all of them can be a huge success at international level. Jake already has had success at international and I think that would be a positive for him.
Looking ahead to the Rugby Championship, why is it South Africa can be so poor on the road yet unbeatable at home?
It is a funny one. I think it’s a mentality thing too. I think it’s something that we have become better at over the last few years, even though last year we performed quite poorly. People always ask, ‘what does home ground advantage mean?’ It’s weird. I mean you’re still playing on the same sized field. It’s just not your supporters. So I think that’s what home ground support can do for you. It lifts you for the game and you can probably bag five to seven points just from home ground advantage alone.
As a South African, who would you say is your biggest rival in rugby? Who do you want to beat the most?
I think the rivalry between South Africa and New Zealand just goes back so far and the history is massive so that will always be big. But when you look over recent times, the tri-nations teams, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia have always pretty much between the top three in the world so it’s always good to beat any of them.
So the Southern Hemisphere rivalry is bigger than England? Because everyone loves to beat England!
I think so. I think the rivalry is bigger. And probably because it’s so tough. It’s tough for us to beat those teams in their own backyard. And it’s tough for them to come to South Africa and beat us. So I think that makes it special. But playing test rugby is a special thing and no matter who you’re playing you want to beat them. It’s a special moment every time you run out for your country.
What about the Stormers this year? You haven’t hit the heights a lot of people expected of you after being so good in 2012. What do you put that down to?
A couple of things. But I think essentially we haven’t played well. It’s been a combination of injuries and things maybe not going our way at times. But that’s rugby. We’ve had a really good last few years. Even though we haven’t won the competition we’ve done really well and been in the top two the last three or four years.
You’ve had a first-hand look at Israel Folau. What’s your impressions?
He was good. Really good. He’s obviously a great sportsman to be able to play the other two codes and then come over to rugby union and do so well immediately. He’s been scoring tries and has been good. He’s a quality footballer and I think it’s great for the game.
You’d expect to face him in international rugby this year?
I think a lot depends on if he decides to stay in union. I think that’s pretty important. And with the Lions tour coming up that’s obviously a massive thing. He’s definitely good enough to play at international level but you sort of want him to commit and be there for a while. Not just one year.
Was he any tougher to tackle than others going around in the Super Rugby competition?
I wouldn’t say so. Rugby is a tough sport and it’s tough to tackle a bloke running at you. It’s the same at international level and Super Rugby level. I think the decision-making is a key thing at the higher levels and he’s definitely doing that right. He’s making good decisions, he’s creating opportunities and he’s scoring tries. So what more could you want.
You had a grounding in 7’s rugby. Do you think that’s where Folau should be dipping his toes to start out his international career?
I definitely think that 7’s rugby is an ideal place to improve your skills. Especially for a younger player. If you’re not with a Super Rugby franchise now it’s a great way to improve and to see the world. I think it’s fantastic how much it’s grown and now that it’s an Olympic sport as well it really gives you great opportunities. I mean to go to an Olympic Games. That’s pretty special.
Okay. So you said you’re not looking beyond the 2015 World Cup. But it sounds like the 2016 Olympics have you thinking?
That would be nice. I’ve got a Commonwealth Games medal but 2016 Olympics I don’t if I’m in Paul Treu’s plans. But no. I don’t see myself doing that. It would be great though. If given the opportunity I would not hesitate to say yes. But no. I can’t see myself being in the running for that.