De Villiers Wants to "Rediscover the Joy of Rugby'

Published: 07th November 2015 09:23 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th November 2015 09:23 AM   |  A+A-

Here is a quick snapshot into Jean De Villiers's character. A little under a year ago, the then South Africa captain suffered as excruciating an injury as it is possible to suffer on a rugby pitch against Wales, when he dislocated a kneecap, rupturing three separate ligaments, when contesting a kick-off. The Springboks medical staff had just popped his mangled knee back into its joint when De Villiers, between taking deep gulps of nitrous oxide, asked: "Did we win the penalty?"

That is the mark of the man, one of the most selfless and stoic players to have stepped on to a rugby pitch. Others have suffered more catastrophic injuries and made more astonishing comebacks, such as Schalk Burger from a case of bacterial meningitis, after his family were told to say their goodbyes. Few, though, have suffered so much repeated misfortune as De Villiers. For a fourth consecutive World Cup, his tournament was cut short by injury, when he broke his jaw against Samoa.

The 34-year-old has also had to act as a lightning rod for those wishing to criticise the Springboks, whether for perceived racial imbalances or their on-pitch failings - and there have been a few of those.

That is why the centre signed a one-year deal with Leicester; to escape a goldfish bowl that makes England's own pool of introspection seem like an ocean. "I want to rediscover the joy of rugby at Leicester, go back to the reasons you played it when you were a kid," De Villiers said. "There will still be pressure and you still need to perform on the day, but without everything that goes with it back home. I can't wait."

For all his trials and tribulations, De Villiers bears no bitterness towards those who have abused him, nor does he seek pity for his setbacks. Indeed he has even developed a sense of humour about his grim World Cup record.

"I think the World Cup and Jean De Villiers should not be mentioned in the same sentence," he says. "If I was to enter the World Cup of chess, I would probably fall off my chair and break my neck. I have had bad luck, but then I have played 109 times for my country, so I can't be too upset."

Just for De Villiers to make it to a fourth World Cup is remarkable enough, after the damage he incurred 12 months ago. "So it was the ACL, PCL, MCL, patella dislocation, the VMO muscle was off and my hamstring was torn," De Villiers says in the manner of someone reciting a shopping list. "That's as bad as you can get. After I came back to the hotel from the hospital, I gave a speech to the boys as if it was the last game I had played for South Africa, possibly the last game of rugby."

On Aug 8, De Villiers returned against Argentina. The feel-good story did not last long. A 37-25 defeat led to a vicious post-mortem, much of it centred on De Villiers's place. It became vitriolic, particularly when certain parties conflated his inclusion in the World Cup squad with the perceived lack of black representation.

"That's unfortunately and fortunately the country that we live in," De Villiers said. "Sport has done a hell of a lot for the country. But also people see sport as an opportunity to get what they want some of the time. That for me is sad. The exact sport that was building our country is now taking it apart again because of people pushing an agenda."

For that reason, De Villiers does not have any social media accounts, although the opprobrium reached him through his family. "I have built up a defence mechanism, I know how to cope," he said. "But when I speak to my wife or my mum, you know something's up. It affects them most."

In spite of all that, De Villiers retains his optimistic outlook on life and rugby, which he maintains can be a force for good even in a society as divisive as South Africa's. "That's why it breaks my heart every single time that we lose, because the effect is massive," De Villiers said. "There is so much bad news in the media. People need to be able to switch on their TV and see South Africa winning. That makes a massive emotional difference to people's lives and it gives them hope."

That baton has now been passed. His time as a Springbok is over as he prepares for life as a Tiger, which begins next month. Already he is looking forward to a partnership with Manu Tuilagi - "an incredible talent" - and learning about the club's traditions.

There is time for one last look in the rear-view mirror. "I would like to be remembered as someone who put his body on the line for the Springboks every time I took to the field." Given that much of his body is now hanging together through the medical equivalent of duct tape and superglue, even his staunchest critics will agree to that.


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