Jean de Villiers will win his 100th Super Rugby cap on Friday, but getting him through to the World Cup in one piece seems unlikely, writes RYAN VREDE.
I vividly recall making my way to Newlands in the early 2000s and spotting De Villiers in the crowd of people outside the stadium. I'd watched him contribute significantly to the Baby Boks' Under 21 World Championship triumph in 2002 and was aware of how highly he was rated by elite level coaches, despite his professional career being in its infancy.
He was dressed in a Western Province blazer, only it rested over just one shoulder. The other shoulder was in full cast, his arm suspended up and away from his body to support its healing by a metal bar. At the time the press were writing him off as an injury-prone player who'd never realise his potential. This view strengthened when he tore ligaments in his knee just before the 2003 World Cup, robbing him of the chance to compete on the game's biggest stage.
More than a decade later he is now considered one of the game's best midfielders and should be remembered as one of the greatest ever when he retires. On Friday he plays his 100th Super Rugby match. He is four short of that milestone in Test rugby. Only the very best players collect a combined 200 caps at those levels. I've said it before, Jean de Villiers is a national treasure.
However, my view isn't widely shared. Certainly in Cape Town he is appreciated, but not loved in the manner Schalk Burger is. The further north you go in South Africa, the greater the resistance to his genius becomes. Bulls supporters, for one, have struggled to even acknowledge his worth and, when they were battling for one position, consistently questioned his selection ahead of Wynand Olivier's in a Springbok context. Tellingly, national coaches have seldom looked beyond De Villiers despite having options, while he has been an ever-present for the Stormers since his debut in 2005.
I'm resigned to the fact that the majority of people will only truly appreciate his value after he is gone. And at the rate he is being asked to play, that could be sooner than I'd care to imagine. De Villiers, 33, hasn't had an adequate off-season in years. How he continues to perform at the level he does is beyond my comprehension. It has also made me wonder just how good he could be if he was managed in a manner that sought to prolong his career – for the good of the Stormers and Springboks. If this is De Villiers at 60%, a fully-fit and rested version of the man would be frightening.
It appears that Heyneke Meyer intends to take De Villiers to the 2015 World Cup as his captain. De Villiers has stated that intention as well. Yet the likelihood of him getting through this season without sustaining a serious injury becomes increasingly remote with every game he plays. One needs only to look at Bryan Habana's situation (the winger, who was equally over-played, featured in a handful of games for Toulon before tearing a hamstring) for a picture of what lies ahead. Habana hasn't played since early December and only started his on-field rehabilitation this week. Ominously, Habana represents something of a best-case scenario for De Villiers. He, according to extensive scientific research, is on the brink of a far more catastrophic injury.
De Villiers's need to heal is secondary to Allister Coetzee's need to arrest his side's dramatic regression and save his job. It is secondary to the Stormers' suits ensuring the brand is strong, and a winning team is a winning brand. This situation won't change until players are centrally contracted. The franchises' resistance to that happening is well-documented, and it is clear that Saru's leadership is at the mercy of the franchise bosses.
So De Villiers must hope his body will continue to defy science, this while Dan Carter's longevity strengthens daily thanks to his New Zealand Rugby Union-sanctioned sabbatical. Carter, also in the twilight of his career, is of equal importance to New Zealand's cause as De Villiers is to the Springboks'. Yet the one is treated like a prince while the other toils like a pauper.
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