Jean in line to captain Boks
There were many who felt that the strong showings produced by Frans Steyn at last year’s World Cup, coupled with the appointment of a new coach, might spell the end of the international road for Jean de Villiers, but those prophecies might soon be shown to be a long way from the truth.
De Villiers has long expressed a reluctance to move away from the inside centre position he has preferred during a career where he has fulfilled many different backline roles. However Heyneke Meyer seems to like the idea of De Villiers at No 13 now that Jaque Fourie has retired from international rugby, and if De Villiers is amenable to the shift, he could just find himself leading the Boks from outside centre during the initial stages of Meyer’s tenure as Springbok coach.
Meyer has made no secret of the fact that one of his biggest early challenges is the appointment of a captain who he can share a good understanding with. It was because he didn’t know the current players that overtures were made to Victor Matfield about possibly coming out of retirement to lead the side on an interim basis, but Meyer has been encouraged by the leaders he has encountered during the three training camps he has held over the past fortnight.
Meyer has had the Stormers players working with him during the current planning session in Cape Town, and while he stressed that he didn’t want his words to be taken out of context as the team will only be announced the week before the first test against England in June, he has made no secret of how much Stormers captain De Villiers has impressed him this week.
“I have been impressed with all the franchise captains, there seems to be a lot of good leadership in this country at the moment,” said Meyer.
“A lot of the experienced guys have gone down injured and there isn’t much time before the first England test so for the series against England it will be a short-term appointment. But I will have to pick somebody who I can trust and who shares my philosophy and is an extension of myself on the playing field. I want someone with the right character and necessary rugby intelligence.
“I don’t want this to be taken out of context, and I will only make a decision and an announcement in the build-up to the England test, but I have been particularly impressed with Jean de Villiers. I didn’t know him before and this is my first exposure to him, but he is a strong leader. I have been impressed with the way he has led and organised the Stormers backline.”
Unlike some of the other candidates from the franchises, De Villiers is also of course an experienced Springbok, something that may be in short supply for Meyer's first series because of the high attrition rate in Super Rugby. That may just give De Villiers the edge over Cheetahs leader Adriaan Strauss, who is also known to be highly rated by Meyer but who also has the complication of playing the same position as Bismarck du Plessis.
If you looked at De Villiers purely as a candidate for No 12 the potential of Steyn to usurp him would make him as problematic an appointment as Strauss. Meyer did say at the start of his stint as coach that he would choose the team and then choose the captain. Meyer is known to have a high regard for Steyn, who brings the kicking ability that so many coaches regard as crucial for an inside centre. Not only does the bulky and quick Steyn possess the physical attributes and creative ability required by a No 12, he also has the kicking skills of a flyhalf.
At 31, De Villiers is not the long-term prospect for the role that Steyn is. Although Meyer may be hesitant to select Steyn for the first test against England as he will have no time at all to work with him before the England series arrives, he did say at Thursday’s media briefing at the SA Sports Science Institute that Steyn would be an important part of his plans going forward.
However that does not mean it rules De Villiers out of the equation as a possible captain, for De Villiers is considered by many coaches to be a potentially better outside centre than inside centre. And while he tried not to say too much as he was still to meet with De Villiers later on Thursday for a one-on-one, Meyer did confirm that he was giving strong consideration to moving De Villiers to No 13.
“It is something I am thinking about. I’ve spoken to Jean’s conditioning coach at the Stormers and he tells me that Jean is still as quick as he has ever been. He runs great lines and has great organisational ability so it is definitely a possibility.”
De Villiers has in the past been a bit superstitious about jersey numbering. There have been many occasions where he has worn the No 12 jersey when effectively fulfilling a No 13 role. But De Villiers reckons he has been around too long now to be fussy over which jersey he wears.
“I think I have got too old now to be fussy. I will wear any number on my jersey if the jersey I am wearing is a Springbok jersey,” said De Villiers.
The experienced Stormers player believes that his status as a veteran of the game does not mean he cannot still make a great contribution to Springbok rugby.
“As you get older there’s a perception that you get slower but that isn’t the case. When your speed is still up there and you can still contribute on the field, then it is clear that age doesn’t matter. I always said that when I lose enthusiasm I will pack it in, and I still feel enthusiastic and hungry and capable of making a big contribution.
“Perhaps getting knocked out of the World Cup early has had some benefits as it gave us an extra two weeks away. It was good to have a long off-season a full pre-season with the Stormers. It was good to have a mental break and I can tell you I am still very motivated to wear the Bok jersey.
“Being part of a winning effort at the Stormers has also helped. We have a great system there, a close-knit team, and it is much easier to make a contribution to a successful team. I haven’t worked with Heyneke before, so when we meet for our one-on-one later I will have some questions. I want to know what he wants from me as a player, and I want to get an idea of how he does things as a coach.
“It would be a massive honour to captain the Boks, I don’t think anyone would turn down that opportunity if it was offered to them, but first I must make the team,” he quipped.