Sport

Jean de Villiers: nice guys make the best winners

By Ken Borland 7 November 2013

Jean de Villiers will once again lead the Springboks as they begin their European tour against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday and, having completed a successful Rugby Championship campaign as the best inside centre in the competition, he will be reunited with his old midfield partner in Jaque Fourie. But apart from his actual play, he has also earned massive praise for his captaincy of the Springboks. By KEN BORLAND.

De Villiers is a captain who sanctions no ill-discipline and he has led from the front in this respect with his refusal to get rattled by dirty hits by the likes of Ma’a Nonu or terrible refereeing at the hands of Romain Poite.

Even those critics back home who believe the 32-year-old De Villiers should be discarded because of his age, regardless of how well he is playing, fail to get much of a reaction from a man whose calmness can only bring good things for his team.

International rugby is a macho world of not giving an inch, of fighting for supremacy and never showing the slightest hint of softness. Which makes it all the more remarkable when someone like De Villiers comes along and proves that nice guys often make the best winners.

His character was shown most clearly at Eden Park when the Springboks lost to the All Blacks in their highly-anticipated first meeting, largely due to Poite incorrectly yellow-carding rampant hooker Bismarck du Plessis in the first half, and then sending the one-man wrecking ball off permanently early in the second half when he earned another yellow card.

Despite suffering what the IRB later agreed was an injustice, and despite Nonu smashing into him late and high with a shoulder, De Villiers was the epitome of graceful composure after the bitterly disappointing game, the bonus point New Zealand gained against 14 men basically deciding the Rugby Championship.

“Maybe having kids has taught me more patience, but the key is being able to keep your cool in tense situations. I don’t have a recipe for it, but I just want to be able to contribute positively to my team,” De Villiers told Daily Maverick.

“You don’t want to waste energy over things you can’t control. Shouting at the referee, having a go after the decision, it won’t change it. I’ve never seen a decision changed.

“It’s the way it is and you just have to try and get a positive take out of it. Our discipline as a team has been much better. We averaged only seven penalties against us per game and in the last match against the All Blacks we only conceded five penalties. That’s fantastic and it’s something we must maintain,” De Villiers said.

Most South Africans were rooting for Nonu to be cited after the incident at Eden Park, and the citing commissioner did approach the Springbok captain for his views on the illegal hit that earned an on-field yellow card. It was typical of De Villiers that he said the hit had been below the head and that killed any further action there and then.

In the return fixture at Ellis Park, the All Blacks were in trouble for listing the wrong player on their team sheet as their replacement hooker and, as referee Nigel Owens dealt with the issue, De Villiers came over and said “it doesn’t matter, let’s get on with the game”, earning praise for his sportsmanship from New Zealand coach Steve Hansen.

De Villiers not only rarely errs defensively, but has also shown tremendous vision and ball-carrying strength on attack. The Springboks were only one try behind the champion All Blacks at the end of the competition and the captain says their improvement with the ball has been the biggest positive of the campaign.

“Our attack has improved so much, our ability to identify space and get the ball there is so much better now. Last year it was something we worked hard on, but we were still in a building phase. This year the passes have stuck and it’s very exciting. It also has a lot to do with our progress at the breakdown, we’ve been a lot more clinical,” De Villiers said.

The good news for the team is that their most capped centre (93 Tests), despite his workload in one of the busiest channels on the rugby field, is confident he can keep going until the 2015 World Cup.

“I’m really feeling good, the body is holding up considering the amount of game time I’ve had, and I feel I’m playing decent rugby.

“If I’m still the best inside centre in the country then there’s no reason why I can’t make the World Cup and, in an ideal world, I’d love that.

“But it’s up to the coach and he has to plan the group he wants to take and have all the scenarios in place. If I’m still the number one centre then I could captain the side at the World Cup, but I’m very aware of the situation,” De Villiers said.

And in terms of the team, De Villiers said they are not going to beat themselves up over their twin losses to the All Blacks this year; the feeling is that the Springboks are yet to reach their prime.

“I really felt we could win at Ellis Park and we didn’t play bad rugby. We just need to get our attack and defence together at the same time. There’s no reason for us not to feel positive, so many good things came out of the competition and we’re not going to let one result overshadow that.

“We’ve seen glimpses of this team’s potential and we have guys coming back from injury like Frans Steyn, Jaco Taute, Johan Goosen and Schalk Burger. When you put them all in the mix, then you see we have a lot of depth and talent. It’s a happy squad at the moment,” De Villiers said.

And a lot of the credit for that must go to their captain, who has provided inspirational leadership and excellent performance. DM

Photo: South African Captain, Jean De Villiers. (REUTERS/David Moir)

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