Jean was a true warrior

Jean de Villiers will go down as a Springbok great, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

During the early hours of the morning at the Springbok team hotel in Newcastle, Jean de Villiers and best mate Schalk Burger sat and pondered the perfect ending to a career. They came to the conclusion that there is none.

Earlier on, during that fateful day at the end of September, De Villiers’s worst fears had been confirmed when X-rays revealed he had suffered a fractured jaw against Samoa in the Springboks’ second World Cup pool game, ending his participation at the tournament, and his international career, in one cruel blow.

Yet without regret or bitterness, De Villiers and Burger raised one final glass to an illustrious Springbok career that had spanned 13 years and included 109 Tests, 37 as captain.

‘Schalk and I were talking about everything we’ve been through over the past 13 years. I don’t know. Maybe Jean de Villiers and World Cups don’t go together,’ he reminisces in reference to the injuries that have curtailed his involvement at the past four tournaments.

‘We were philosophising about what happened. What is the perfect way to end your career? Is it possible to end your career in that manner? The reality is you don’t often get a choice.’

During those emotional post-match reflections, De Villiers also spent time with some other South African sporting greats – legendary former Bok Danie Gerber and golfer Ernie Els.

‘Danie is my absolute rugby hero; I think he’s the best rugby player South Africa has ever produced. And Ernie has always been one of my sporting heroes,’ De Villiers says. ‘Through rugby they’ve become very good friends of mine, and so it was ironic to finish my last game with those guys there. Then Schalk and I sat up until about four in the morning, just talking about life, and our careers.’

Ultimately, though, De Villiers acknowledged that in sport, fairytales are often just that, a thing of fantasy.

In 2003, a knee injury ruled him out of that year’s World Cup, while he tore his bicep in the opening game of the 2007 tournament. The fickle finger of fate struck again during the early stages of the global event four years ago when he suffered a rib injury, and while he did return in the quarter-finals, it would be in a losing cause.

But through it all, De Villiers has remained a true warrior, battling back time and time again, while keeping the challenges of life and sport in perspective.

His recovery from a horror knee injury suffered at the end of 2014, which required several different surgical procedures, was really the stuff of miracles, but this time, he admits there was no coming back.

‘This injury, it’s rugby. I’ve had a few in my career and I suppose I know how to cope with it. Of course it’s sad, but life goes on; you need to take it all in and move forward. Having been through so much over the  past 13 years, you never think it will end like this, but I’m just grateful for the time I’ve had in the Springbok jersey. I told the players I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. As a former Bok now, I’m going to be supporter No 1,’ he says with a smile.

Such an outlook is testimony to the character of De Villiers, the ultimate team man.

‘To see the emotion in the team room when he said his goodbyes to his teammates made me realise how well liked he is, not just by every person in this squad, but also most other people in the rugby fraternity,’ says coach Heyneke Meyer. ‘Jean enriched my life and I hold him in very high regard, as a person and rugby player. Rugby will be poorer without Jean de Villiers.’

Bryan Habana, who replaced the injured De Villiers to make his Test debut in 2004, speaks passionately about the legacy the 34-year-old had created as a proud ambassador of the game.

‘It’s been emotional. Jean is a guy who will go down as one of the greatest players to have ever worn the Springbok jersey. He was a true spokesman for the game, not just on the field, but off it too, in South Africa and globally.

‘There were definitely a few tears shed, but hopefully as a team we can build on a legacy that he left for us to take forward. He bled for Bok rugby, and his journey through the past 11 months has been spectacular.’

De Villiers not only earned the unwavering respect of his teammates, but that of his opponents too, as was aptly illustrated on the occasion of his 100th Test for the Boks.

After that match in Wellington last year, All Blacks captain Richie McCaw gave a glowing tribute to De Villiers, while Ma’a Nonu made a special effort to leave his jersey behind as a memento for the Bok captain, despite having been rushed to hospital after sustaining an injury.

‘Can I just say on behalf of the All Blacks, we respect you hugely; you’re a true gentleman of the game,’ McCaw effused. ‘When you put the Springbok jersey on, you represent it with everything you’d expect, but off the field you’re a top man.’

De Villiers, with his down-to-earth manner, also endeared himself to his toughest critics, in the public and media. The witty skipper was always willing to engage with those he knew had a love and passion for the game.

During his long road to recovery from his latest horror knee injury, I recall a visit he made to a local school in Durban earlier this year, where he enthralled a crowd of pupils, parents and aspiring players with his humble and humorous offerings. He spent more than an hour afterwards signing autographs and happily chatting to everyone who came his way.

By all accounts, he garnered a similar reaction when he spoke to Bok supporters gathering at the team’s World Cup welcoming ceremony in Eastbourne. And when De Villiers completed his final press conference as Bok captain on 27 September, he earned a hearty round of applause from the South African media. In turn, he rose from his seat with a glint in his eye, and asked: ‘So, who’s buying me a beer?’

Cheers to that! Cheers to De Villiers, a true legend of the game.

– This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Craig Lewis