Jean de Villiers says the Springboks’ Europe-based players have a level of maturity that has been invaluable on the year-end tour to date.
The Springboks named a starting side with five players who have played or currently play in Europe, with three more on the bench. This is pertinent because coach Heyneke Meyer initially had strong reservations about selecting those based in Europe, believing that the standard of play and conditioning was not on par with the southern hemisphere.
It appears that his view has been altered and he has suggested that the impressive performances of Ruan Pienaar (Ulster, Ireland) and Francois Louw (Bath, England) has been central to this.
De Villiers himself spent a season at Munster and returned extolling the value of the experience on a professional and personal level. He said the lessons learned from time spent living and playing abroad has had an undeniable and patent influence.
‘If you look at how outstanding Flo [Louw] has been for us, Heinke’s [van der Merwe] massive contribution in the couple of minutes he was on [against Ireland] where he earned two penalties that probably won the game for us, Schalk [Brits] has been good for Saracens and so has Gurthro [Steenkamp] for Toulouse. Those players were already quality before they left but it is clear they’ve learned a lot from playing overseas, particularly in these conditions,’ De Villiers said.
‘It is something a player needs to do at some stage in his career. It takes you out of your comfort zone and you have different experiences. In my case I travelled all around Europe, which is not something I would have had the opportunity to do without having gone to Munster. You earn good money, which is important, but the growth you take from it is more important. There’s also a payback for South African rugby because the younger guys learn from what you’ve learned.’
Pienaar in particular looks a player transformed and one growing in stature with every Test. De Villiers, who has played with him for a large part of his Test career, attributed his form to his Ulster stint but also noted the value of positional certainty.
‘In Ruan’s case you can see what a difference it has made with a coach who has backed him in one position and allowed him to settle,’ he said. ‘When he was playing in South Africa he was thrown around in different positions. Now that he is playing regularly at scrumhalf for Ulster and for us he has been outstanding.
‘I’m very happy for him. He has definitely matured, it’s clear. And with him being the third most capped player in the team, he now has a leadership role. It’s a similar thing with Frans Steyn – he is a totally different player, a far better one.’
There has been a determined air about the Springboks at training sessions this week, but they were also regularly to be seen out and about in Edinburgh, taking in the historical city’s sights and sounds. It is something Meyer has encouraged and De Villiers said it was a vital part of a player’s well-being.
‘Some of the youngsters are in Europe for the first time and others are out of South Africa for the first time. There is a lot of personal growth that happens with seeing the world, so for them to get out and live the city they’re in is something I really encourage. Rugby gives you the platform to travel the world and there’s no use in just coming here to train and play the game. You have to take a break, experience the culture and learn about the city you’re in. It is an important part of your preparation.’
By Ryan Vrede, in Edinburgh