Recovering Springbok captain Jean de Villiers is working with visual skills expert Sherylle Calder in order to bring his reaction time up to speed. JON CARDINELLI reports.
De Villiers made his long-awaited return to the training field earlier this week. If all goes to plan, the Bok centre will complete his comeback to competitive rugby in mid-July.
De Villiers is expected to get some game time for Western Province in the Currie Cup warm-ups. He could even feature in the Boks' match-day squad during the Rugby Championship.
De Villiers's recovery from a horrific knee injury is a great story, and encouraging news for the Boks in the buildup to their World Cup campaign. It's taken six months of intense, and at times, painful rehabilitation, but De Villiers feels the effort will be worth it in the end. Medical experts believe his knee will stand up to scrutiny at the global tournament.
The Bok captain has also taken it upon himself to ensure his reaction time is up to speed. In early March, he approached Calder. The pair have now been working together on a one-on-one basis for the past three months. De Villiers has also been working on Calder's EyeGym programme. Ultimately, he hopes to hone his skills to the point where they are sharper than before.
‘My mind’s still sharp; from a rugby knowledge point of view. I haven’t lost anything,' De Villiers told SARugbymag.co.za. '[Working with Calder] is more about seeing things and having the body react to it. That will be important.'
Calder boasts a sterling reputation in this field, having helped many international sportsmen and women hone their visual skills to the point where it gave them a telling advantage in championship events. Calder was part of the England management team when Clive Woodward’s side won the 2003 World Cup, and worked alongside Jake White’s Boks between 2004 and 2007.
It was here that Calder first worked with De Villiers. That working relationship ended after De Villiers tore his bicep in the opening match of the 2007 World Cup against Samoa, and was ruled out for the rest of the tournament.
‘When we resumed that working relationship earlier this year, we immediately set ourselves the goal of making Jean even better than he was before,' Calder told SARugbymag.co.za. 'When he walks onto the field for his first game, he must have the ability to take all the visual information in, and react faster than before. His understanding of space and his overall sense of timing must be better. It’s really about getting his game intelligence up to speed, or as I say, eventually taking it to a new level.’
Many former and current players have endorsed Calder's methods. England flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson praised Calder in the wake of the 2003 World Cup final, a match which saw Wilkinson slotting the decisive drop goal with his wrong foot.
In 2007, Bryan Habana's anticipation and execution was a direct result of his work with Calder. 'Thanks for making my eyes as fast as my feet,' Habana told Calder, after the Boks won the World Cup and he was named IRB Player of the Year.
Calder believes there's another reason why her methods will benefit a key player like De Villiers, especially in a World Cup year.
‘He’s the captain, and so his peripheral vision and understanding of what's happening around him has to be excellent,’ she says. ‘Things happen very quickly on the field, and an individual player might take in all that information and react accordingly. Jean has to be able to take everything in, and not just the information that's specific to his position. He then has to be able to communicate that information to his teammates. It’s not just about seeing everything, but reacting quickly. That can give you the edge.
‘It may be another month or so before he is where he wants to be,’ Calder continues. ‘I still have the measurements from our time together in 2007. Incredibly, after three months with us, Jean has already improved on those 2007 measurements. But we’re not stopping there, we plan to have him operating at an entirely new level.
'I can’t wait to see him get back onto the field. If there's an opportunity to intercept and he takes it… well, I think I will celebrate by opening an expensive bottle of champagne!’