Jean de Villiers hopes his return from a horrific knee injury will inspire the Springboks to a third World Cup title, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Seconds after suffering an apocalyptic knee injury in the Test between Wales and South Africa last November, Jean de Villiers was engulfed by doubt. The Springbok captain began to believe the worst: that his dreams of leading South Africa to the 2015 World Cup were over.
Despair threatened to overtake doubt when he wondered if he’d ever walk without a limp again. Would he ever be able to play with his three children without the surge of agony that is unfortunately a common by-product of a lengthy and injury-affected rugby career?
The medics lifted him on to the cart, and drove him off the Millennium Stadium pitch. His despairing eyes caught those of Bok assistant coach Johann van Graan, who was walking alongside the cart.
‘I don’t want it to end this way,’ De Villiers told Van Graan.
What happened next would be significant, not just in the context of De Villiers’s World Cup prospects, but those of the Bok team.
‘Johann told me not to worry,’ De Villiers reveals to SA Rugby magazine. ‘He told me everything will work out. And I believed him. In that exact moment, I made the mental shift. I decided I wasn’t going to give up on my goals or my dream to be part of this team.’
When we meet for this interview, De Villiers has just completed a particularly draining rehabilitation session. It’s six months to the day since he was left prone and shattered on the Millennium Stadium turf.
I remember speaking to Heyneke Meyer in the hours that followed the incident. The Bok coach was more emotional about De Villiers’s injury than he was about South Africa’s 12-6 defeat to Wales. The loss of De Villiers was that big; it would have greater repercussions.
The next day, Meyer told the travelling South African press he had already started to explore captaincy alternatives for the 2015 season. At that stage, it seemed unlikely De Villiers would recover in time for the World Cup.
Six months on, De Villiers is recovering, and far quicker than anyone could have predicted. If all goes to plan, the Bok centre will return to the playing field in mid-July. De Villiers truly believes he will be back to his best by the time the Boks depart for the World Cup in September. And if he is back to his best, he will resume the captaincy.
Time will tell whether De Villiers hits those targets and reclaims his place. A point of interest is why such a decorated player, who has already achieved so much with the Boks, is so desperate to be a part of the 2015 campaign.
De Villiers has won two Tri-Nations titles (2004 and 2009), and featured prominently in the successful 2009 series against the British & Irish Lions. He has already been to two World Cups, and while he only played 45 minutes before succumbing to injury in the opening game of the 2007 tournament, he still received a winner’s medal. De Villiers is one of the few Boks of the modern era who have beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand twice.
To come back from that devastating injury sustained in Cardiff would be miraculous, but what exactly is driving his return? Why is he putting himself through such an intense and painful rehabilitation programme?
De Villiers explains there is more than one reason. On the lower end of the scale is the desire to prove the naysayers wrong. He recalls a moment, a few days after the injury, when he was reading about his chances in a local paper. A doctor, who had not seen nor assessed De Villiers’s knee, was quoted as saying the player was a lost cause.
‘I won’t say that motivated me, but there is a little part of you that wants to prove people like that wrong,’ he says, an edge in his voice even now, some six months after the incident. ‘The reality is you might not make it back, but I’m a positive person. I believe I will be back on the field and that I can still play a part.’
That interchange with Van Graan was the turning point for De Villiers. Since then, he has committed wholeheartedly to getting back to where he was before. He has accomplished a great deal in his career thus far, but he feels there is still something to gain from representing the Boks later this year.
‘It’s not an easy road back, I can assure you. The biggest motivating factor is the love of the game. And I love playing for the Springboks. I’d love to get the opportunity to do it again.
‘My kids have also played a big role in terms of my motivation,’ he continues. ‘Two days after that first knee op, my son was born. It’s my third child, but my first son. It made me think about things. I want to leave a legacy, to achieve something my kids may look back on and say, “Wow, we’re really proud of what our dad achieved”.
‘In rugby, there are a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of players don’t make it through. In life, many kids go through similar struggles. It’s how you get through them that defines you. I’d love to achieve something my kids can be proud of, but I can also see the bigger picture. Hopefully this story can also be an inspiration to others.’
De Villiers himself has been inspired by one of the great comeback stories of the modern era. Two years ago, Schalk Burger was at death’s door.
The Springbok flanker had surgery to drain a cyst on his back and picked up a hospital bug, which led to bacterial meningitis. Incredibly, Burger fought back to recover from the illness, and to reclaim his place in the Bok side in 2014. Burger and De Villiers are best mates, with their relationship stretching all the way back to the pair’s school days at Paarl Gym.
‘One cannot help but be inspired when you see what the human body and mind are capable of,’ says De Villiers. ‘And to have someone so close to me going through something a lot worse, and escaping death, that’s definitely given me a lot of inspiration and motivation. What Schalk did was typical Schalk, I suppose. He just never gave up, and it’s really great to see him play with such freedom now. That is also something I would like to do.’
De Villiers describes himself as a positive person, and he has no doubt he will recover from this injury. Of course, it will do the Boks no good if he only returns to action in the first game of the World Cup this September. De Villiers needs to play in the Rugby Championship and build up some form before the global tournament.
‘If you look at everything, I shouldn’t be ready in time,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘Take it all into consideration: the severity of the injury, my age , the time left before the World Cup … If you consider all that, the odds are against me being ready.
‘Once I get on to the field, I will have to show that I’m good enough to play. I’ve been in the game long enough to know whether I’m good enough or not. There will be pressure, and I’m sure there will be speculation, but at the end of the day, I will know.
‘I know I can play rugby. My mind is still sharp from a rugby knowledge point of view. I haven’t lost anything. It’s more about seeing things and having the body react to it. I’ve done a lot of work with [visual skills expert] Dr Sherylle Calder [see sidebar]. Being able to see things quicker and react, that will be important. And speed. I need to get that back up to where it was last year. Things are looking pretty good on that front.’
De Villiers doesn’t shy away from the hard question. Many people will be reflecting on what transpired at the 2011 World Cup. Coach Peter de Villiers backed John Smit to lead the team despite the fact the ageing Bok captain was a spent force. Smit certainly didn’t deserve his place ahead of the then form hooker in world rugby, Bismarck du Plessis.
De Villiers’s situation is different in the sense that he has proved his value over the past three seasons. Before last year’s injury, he was still among the best centres in the world. And yet, will he be fit enough, and back to his best, by September? If not, will Meyer be strong enough to invest in someone else to lead, and someone else to play in midfield?
‘Look, the way I see it, I still need to prove I’m good enough to go to the World Cup,’ De Villiers confirms. ‘There are no guarantees. If I come back, and it turns out I’m not good enough, I will take a step back. I don’t want to go to the World Cup if I’m not good enough.
‘Having said that, I believe I can get there; back to a level where I’m making positive contributions to the team once more. If they do select me, if they think I’m good enough in my position and to captain the team, that will be great.
‘I feel I’ve done well in my 106 Tests. I don’t want to play another couple of games and destroy any reputation I might have had before that. That’s important to me. It’s part of the Springbok ethos and code of conduct – you put the team first.’
JEAN'S 'CAR CRASH' INJURY
In the wake of that infamous Test against Wales on 29 November 2014, Springbok team doctor Craig Roberts described Jean de Villiers’s left knee injury as ‘as bad as it gets’. The Bok captain tore his anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate, and medial collateral ligaments. The patella was dislocated, his vastus medalis quadricep muscle was detached, and his left hamstring was torn.
‘I had six knee ops, and what they usually do if you’ve got an ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] rupture is either take your hamstring or quad tendon and use that as a graft to put into the ligament,’ explains De Villiers. ‘In my case, my hamstring tendon was used already, so was my quad tendon. It was really bad. Even the knee specialist, Spike Erasmus, told me it was the kind of thing you see after somebody has been in a car crash or motorcycle accident.’
EYE ON THE PRIZE
In early March, Jean de Villiers sought out visual skills expert Dr Sherylle Calder, with the aim of improving his reaction time and co-ordination. Calder boasts a sterling reputation in this field, having helped many sportsmen and women hone their visual skills to the point where it gave them the advantage in championship events.
Calder was part of the England management team when Clive Woodward’s side won the World Cup in 2003, and worked alongside Jake White’s Boks between 2004 and 2007. It was here that she 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.
‘I remember him being very upset when he received the news,’ recalls Calder. ‘I really felt for him. He’s not only a great player, but a great guy off the field too, one of my favourites.
‘I’m glad we’ve resumed our working relationship. Between Springbok team physiotherapist Rene Naylor and Jean, they thought it would be a good idea to sound me out. We got to work, and immediately set ourselves the goal of making Jean even better than he was before. When he walks on to the field for his first game [hopefully by the end of July], 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, or as I say, making it better than it was before.’
De Villiers is working with Calder in a private capacity. It is, however, a partnership that could benefit the Boks at this year’s World Cup. As Calder explains, De Villiers is not just any player, and his eyes will need to be sharper than those of the ‘regular’ players.
‘He’s the captain, so his peripheral vision and understanding of what is happening has to be excellent,’ she says. ‘Things happen very quickly on the field, and an individual player must take in all that information and react accordingly. Jean has to be able to take everything in, not just the information that is 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’s where he wants to be,’ Calder continues. ‘I still have the measurements from 2007. Incredibly, after four months with us, Jean has already improved on those 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 on the field. If there is an opportunity to intercept and he takes it … I think I will celebrate by opening an expensive bottle of champagne!’
– This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine