Don't make Jean pant
If South African rugby truly wants to invest in a bid to win the Rugby World Cup in 2015, then that plan should start with a long-term maintenance plan for captain Jean de Villiers.
The Bok captain has been playing some of the best rugby of his career, and is now at a point where he truly leads from the front in the Springbok side – and his team follows.
He has struck up a magnificent bond with coach Heyneke Meyer, so much so that it is clear that Meyer trusts him as his captain, and will want him to lead the side into the 2015 World Cup if he is fit and available.
But unless the South African Rugby Union and De Villiers’ Stormers franchise come to some agreement, the chances that he will break before the World Cup are inevitable.
It is no secret that De Villiers, now 31, has a few miles on him. He is asked at almost every press conference these days about his age, so much so that he now laughs off the questions.
What his detractors don’t see when they look at his age, is that De Villiers has come through the school of hard knocks, has lifted himself up and has climbed back to the top. He has blossomed as the Bok captain, and is very clearly the leader of the team when the troops are together.
But while New Zealand’s central contracting system allows them to rest players such as Dan Carter and Richie McCaw in an attempt to prolong their careers, the contracting system in South Africa means that Springbok rugby often comes second to the interests of the province involved.
De Villiers is a must if the Boks are to head into the World Cup with confidence. The side has grown immensely under his leadership over the last year, and with no clear other candidates around, he has become possibly the most valuable member of the Springbok team.
His contract expires at the end of the year, and it is imperative that whatever decision is taken about his future, it is taken with the best interests of the Springboks in mind.
At the moment the other captaincy candidates are Bismarck du Plessis, Francois Louw and Adriaan Strauss.
Strauss and Du Plessis rotate at hooker, and there is no clear candidate when it comes to which of the two starts in that position.
The Springbok captain cannot be based overseas, which removes Louw from the mix – he is based in Bath and has just renewed his contract there.
De Villiers played 31 games last year and played in 80 minutes in each one. This year he missed just two Stormers games, playing in 14 plus the seven tests the Boks have played this year.
Given that there are two tests left in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship, three Absa Currie Cup games and three more tests in the year, it means that De Villiers will finish with close to 30 games under his belt once again this year.
It is something that an ageing warrior will not be able to sustain until 2015, and thus some hard decisions need to be made.
De Villiers admitted that with the miles on his clock, such a regime would probably mean he wouldn’t be able to make the World Cup.
“I’m enjoying my rugby at the moment and that is the big thing for me,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed captaining this side and being part of its progression over the last 16 months. I’ve seen how the team has matured and I’m proud to be a part of that.
"I’m grateful for having been given the opportunity to captain this team and I’ve enjoyed it.
“I get the question about my age so much that all I can say is that I’m not looking too far ahead. I’m simply looking to play well and if I get to another World Cup, then I’m happy. If I don’t then I hope South Africa does well.”
De Villiers does admit that unless there is a change, he doesn’t think his body will hold until 2015.
“That is the challenge. I don’t think it is sustainable for me,” he admitted.
“But saying that I’ve missed so much rugby at times and been on the outside looking in, that once you are fit and getting selected, you simply want to make the most of it.
“It’s a catch-22 situation for me, but for now I’m not focusing on the World Cup, but just on the next game, and then to finish off the year strongly.”
One way of keeping De Villiers fit and healthy would be for the South African Rugby Union to take up his full contract, thereby contracting him to the national body until after the World Cup.
It could be done in the same way the Sevens contracts are handled, and it would give coach Heyneke Meyer enough say over De Villiers’ playing time.
A deal could then be done with the Stormers to “hire him back” for a set number of games, so that the Boks get the optimum time out of their captain.
If it is successful, it could also serve as the model for a central contracting system in the future that could benefit the Springboks and make them a stronger force.
Presently there will be too many franchises that will fight against it and players will continue to be played into the ground.
One thing is certain: currently, De Villiers is playing the best rugby of his career and is the popular leader of the Bok team. He can take South Africa to the World Cup if he is managed properly.
But for that to happen, sanity has to prevail and the Stormers and Saru need to work out a plan as to how best to manage him.
It is an acid test for South African rugby, and especially for Springbok rugby.
And it is one that needs to be taken soon, or it is just a matter of time before De Villiers breaks down and is lost to the Boks forever.