Jean de Villiers talks about a series that marks the pinnacle of his career, his rotten run with injuries, and why Brian O’Driscoll is one of the world’s best players.
South African Player of the Year in 2008, De Villiers continued to shine before injuring his groin in the Stormers’ defeat to the Hurricanes on 18 April. De Villiers made his comeback to rugby against a Namibian XV last Friday, coming off the bench to score.
Jon Cardinelli caught up with De Villiers at the team hotel in Johannesburg to chat about the coming Test series.
JC: Jean, you were always expected to be out of action for six weeks, but are you feeling completely fit ahead of the Tests?
Jean: I was at 100% when I played 30 minutes against that Namibian XV last Friday. Unfortunately, I woke up on Tuesday morning with a stiff back. It’s something we’ll have to look at in the next couple of days. I’ve had it two or three times before, so I hope it will be fine. It would be terrible if it ruled me out again. I have had a pretty horrible run with injuries, it’s always a case of bad timing. My career has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, and when you hit those lows you have to teach yourself how to deal with it. It also helps to have a family that can help you get back up again.
JC: Assuming you’ll get over this ailment, wouldn’t you like to get some more game time ahead of the first Test in Durban, perhaps for WP vs the Lions next Saturday?
Jean: I don’t think any of the players named in the squad will be available for the provincial games. Besides, there is still a lot of time between now and that Test, and ample time to get myself ready.
JC: The Lions struggled in their 37-25 win over the Royal XV. What did you make of that performance?
Jean: I actually didn’t watch much of it, I was at Jaque Fourie’s wedding on Saturday. The bits and pieces I did see suggest they have a way to go, but we won’t underestimate them.
JC: Centre Jamie Roberts was a standout for them. Your thoughts on him being a dangerman in the coming Tests?
Jean: He’s a class player. I’m not too sure how much time he’s spent at centre, but he’s done a fantastic job. I think he will partner Brian O’Driscoll in the Tests, and they could form a dangerous combination.
JC: In past interviews you’ve always spoken about your admiration for O’Driscoll, but you’ve always considered him only one half of a devastating Ireland combination. Was it a shock to hear Gordon D’Arcy was omitted from the touring squad?
Jean: I was so sure he’d be in the side, so yes, I was surprised when he was left out. D’Arcy and O’Driscoll complement each other very well and have always been a handful in the past.
JC: You mentioned your rotten luck with injuries, injuries that have ruled you out of big tournaments like the 2003 and 2007 World Cups. Is this your World Cup?
Jean: Definitely, this is the pinnacle of my career. A lot of people talk about the Lions’ tour as being the next biggest thing, but for me it’s bigger than the World Cup. I got my winner’s medal but I never felt I had made a telling contribution, I was still very jealous [De Villiers was injured in the opener against Samoa and missed the rest of the competition]. I know a lot of other players have stuck around for this series because we all just want to be a part of it. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often.
JC: As a team, do you feel you’ve had enough preparation ahead of this series? Is there a danger of coming into the Tests underdone?
Jean: Look, the bulk of us have been playing together for five years. There’s also the momentum of the Bulls’ win in the Super 14 which we hope will flow into the Bok side. I have to admit, as a Stormers player, I am still jealous. It must be great to be part of a Super 14 win, and I suppose that’s something I still need to strive for.
JC: What are your thoughts on the potential Lions starting backline for the Tests?
Jean: It’s tough to say who they’ll pick after one match. They have two fantastic fullbacks in Lee Byrne and Rob Kearney. Shane Williams was the IRB Player of the Year for a good reason and O’Driscoll will always be the dangerman. Mike Phillips is a very physical scrumhalf that will test us and then they have two world-class flyhalves [Ronan O'Gara and Stephen Jones]. We’ve played against these individuals before, but it’s going to be interesting to see how they gel as a unit. We are concentrating on what we need to do, but we will never underestimate them. This is Test rugby and there are no easy games.
JC: How different will the game be under the revised ELVs?
Jean: I think the game’s going to be a lot slower than what we’re used to. Obviously there won’t be those free kicks at the breakdown, and we’ll also have to be careful about having a go in that area when we’re defending, because the punishment is now a penalty. It will be an interesting area of the game, and I know that some referees struggle more than the players. We will have to do our homework on the opposition, but we will also have to look at who is refereeing what game.
JC: Where were you when the Lions played the Boks in Cape Town, 1997?
Jean: I was a schoolboy in the Newlands’ crowd. I think that’s when it dawned on me how big the Lions were. As far as the game goes, that Matt Dawson dummy still haunts us.