Jean de Villiers has had to endure pressure that would have cracked lesser men and deserves to be recognised as South Africa's Player of the Year, writes RYAN VREDE.
I recall vividly a conversation De Villiers and I had in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, in November 2012. I'd written a piece asserting that the year-end tour was an entrance examination that, if passed, would pave the way for him to continue his international career as a key member of the Springboks in 2013. Failure would have seen Heyneke Meyer look elsewhere for a captain and starting inside centre. My view was informed by Meyer himself, who had confided in me that he wasn't convinced of De Villiers's value in either role.
I'd arrived at the post-match press conference early, and upon De Villiers's entry he strolled over to me. Having been on the receiving end of various players and coaches' wrath for holding views that differed from theirs, I feared the worse. Instead I found De Villiers insightful and engaging. 'You're right,' he said. 'This is a critical tour for me. I know I have to play well or it could be the end.'
De Villiers would enjoy an impressive tour, and on the day before their departure from London (they played England in the third and final Test), Meyer announced that De Villiers would retain the captaincy for the 2013 season. Still he stressed that he would pick the player first (i.e. form would guide his decision to retain the player), with his leadership ability a secondary consideration. De Villiers, having overcome his initial test, responded by not only surviving his second season under Meyer, but excelling.
Some suggested that his form was a throwback to his prime. I disagree. I believe that in the context of the pressure he was under, from both the national selectors and an appreciable section of the South African rugby fraternity, De Villiers's form was the best of his career. Lest we forget, he is the most over-played man in South Africa, having had nothing close to an adequate off season in nearly four years.
His performances were a statement: 'I'm not done'. Certainly, others nominated in the category – Bismarck du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Willie le Roux and Duane Vermeulen – made significant contributions to the team's success in 2013. But none of them had to deal with the added pressure of captaincy and the prospect of their Test careers ending or being curtailed should they under-perform.
How long De Villiers can keep delivering at the level he did in 2013 is unknown. He explored a dimension of his resolve and conditioning that only the very elite players have the capacity to. It cannot go on. His form will drop markedly if he is asked to play all of the Stormers' Super Rugby matches this year. Under those circumstances, he won't see the 2015 World Cup in a starting or impact role. In terms of succession planning, it is also critical that De Villiers is present to invest in the supremely gifted Jan Serfontein.
That issue demands co-operation between the Stormers and Springboks, with the parties needing to reach a resolution quickly. But that's for the future. At present we celebrate an iconic Springbok, one whose mental strength combines with a high level of technical aptitude to make for a formidable player, one deserving of our praise.
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