As has been the case with so many of South Africa’s great sportsmen, Jean de Villiers was seemingly a prophet not honoured in his own land. While cynics may say good riddance, others know he deserves much respect. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
You’ll have to look long and hard to find a rugby player more unlucky than Jean de Villiers. The Springbok captain called time on his career on Sunday following a broken jaw that ruled him out of the Rugby World Cup.
In 2003, he missed the World Cup with a shoulder injury. In 2007, he picked up an injury in the first pool game – also against Samoa – but remained with the squad until they won the final. Introspection is a rarity for many professional sports people, they are simply not trained in brevity, but De Villiers has always been an astute orator and he is under no illusions about that World Cup medal from 2007.
“It was a very empty feeling,” he told the Guardian last year.
“I’m fortunate to have a World Cup winners’ medal but I don’t think I deserved it. I was very happy for the team and my friends but I was empty inside. I never look at the medal now.”
In 2011, injury struck again. He took a knock in the opening game and returned for the quarterfinal, losing to Australia. This time, he had hoped things would be different, but Lady Luck had other plans. Another World Cup, another injury. South Africa’s chances of lifting the World Cup this year are probably only moderate, but players like De Villiers are tenacious and will do everything they can to help their team get as far as possible. That tenacity cost him in the end, in more ways than one.
Over the last few months, De Villiers became a sort of lightning conductor for all that is wrong with transformation in South African rugby. Following a long-term injury, which nearly ended his career, and a broken jaw, De Villiers’s return to the South African side was met with much criticism.
Many viewed his immediate return to the team as evidence of coach Heyneke Meyer’s so-called anti-transformation agenda and he got caught in the crossfire. Some believed he should have rejected the call to captain the team. For many, De Villiers was past his best and the noble thing would have been to admit that. Yet, he went on to prove that he still has a lot left in the tank.
While his performance against Japan left much to be desired, he played out of his skin against Samoa. And it was De Villiers putting his body on the line that would see him ruled out of the tournament and end his career.
It’s a great shame that his career has ended this way, but it’s not entirely unexpected. Since he first made his debut for the Boks, his career has been marred with injuries, but he will be remembered for more than just the twilight days.
There is something to be said for a sportsman who is as stubborn in their determination as De Villiers was. The knee injury he sustained last year was so bad that the journalists sitting in the press box team said they could hear his screams – through the noise of the crowd. De Villiers was in so much pain that he’d finished the canister of laughing gas even before he was completely off the pitch. These are the kinds of injuries players should not come back from, but he did.
“People ask me that if at the time I was thinking that the Rugby World Cup was out of the picture,” De Villiers said. “I wasn’t – I was thinking that the rest of my career was out of the picture. When you see your left foot next to your ear, you know something is wrong.”
Even after his broken jaw just a few weeks prior to the World Cup, he was told that these are kinds of injuries that are seen during motorcycle accidents, not on the rugby pitch. But he came back from that, too. With such rotten luck, he was dubbed De Voodoo in some camps and that he managed to return time and time again is nothing short of a miracle. But the sporting narrative rarely has room for miracles and it decided that his international career should end here and now, the voodoo had stuck again. He will finish his playing career overseas.
While we should be cautious when elevating sportsmen beyond their achievements on the field, De Villiers is one of the sportsmen who can be considered a statesman. He spoke eloquently on a number of issues unrelated to rugby, from Marikana to Senzo Meyiwa. He was a great ambassador for the game, a real captain and Braveheart. South Africa will miss him. DM
Photo: Jean de Villiers breaks through Australia’s defence during the Rugby Championship 2014 match between South Africa and Australia at the Newlands stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, 27 September 2014. EPA/NIC BOTHMA.