While it didn’t produce a fairytale finish, Jean de Villiers’s recovery from the horrific knee injury he suffered against Wales at the end of 2014, was a remarkable story of sporting bravery.
South Africa were led into an ambush. With the match falling outside the international window, there was no obligation on northern hemisphere clubs to release players for international duty. While there were no concessions for the Springboks, the Welsh and French rugby unions had agreed to allow the home side to pick a centre pairing of Jamie Roberts (Racing Métro) and Jonathan Davies (Clermont), as well as Toulon’s Leigh Halfpenny at fullback. A further two France-based players, lock Luke Charteris and scrumhalf Mike Phillips, both from Racing Métro, were included on the substitutes’ bench.
It was a game too far, and fertile ground for the Springboks’ first loss to Wales since the debacle at the opening of the Millennium Stadium in 1999.
Defeat might have been bearable had it not been for the sickening injury suffered by Jean de Villiers close to the hour mark.
The replay is not for the squeamish. De Villiers was part of the chasing pack as flyhalf Patrick Lambie kicked off, and the ensuing ruck changed his destiny for ever. His left boot got stuck in the turf, and as the Welsh pushed him over his knee twisted as his leg bent in the wrong direction. De Villiers’ agonised scream could even be clearly heard on television sets, and prompted referee John Lacey to call an immediate halt to proceedings. Play was suspended for several minutes, with paramedics tending to the seriously injured Springbok captain.
Watching the replay, it was difficult to see a way back for De Villiers. “My first thought was that this wasn’t the way in which I wanted my rugby career to end. Our forwards coach, Johann van Graan, was with me and said ‘Don’t worry. It will all work out’,” he recalls.
True to form, De Villiers still attended the so-called kontiki, the traditional post-match tongue-in-cheek team meeting, that same night. “It was tough to attend that kontiki, but I didn’t want everyone to feel sorry for me,” he remembers. “I tried to be positive by making the guys laugh and told them it wasn’t about me. It’s about South Africa and the team.”
De Villiers also put on a brave face after meeting his mother in the lobby of Cardiff’s Hilton Hotel. “His first words to me were ‘Please don’t tell me you’re feeling sorry for me, because I’m not feeling sorry for myself’. It was his way of getting over his feelings. He was being strong and had decided he was going to put up a fight,” recalls Louise de Villiers.
As if the injury wasn’t enough, De Villiers had other stress that week with his wife, Marlie, close to giving birth to their third child.
“We had spoken to Jean in the lead-up about whether he wanted to go home, but being the captain he is, he put his country before his personal life,” recalls Meyer.
“It was incredibly bad for me to see how he went off. I didn’t want his last game to be like that. Once I had gotten over my fears for his safety, my concern about the knock-on effect for the World Cup kicked in.
“I’m not an emotional guy, but I burst into tears when he phoned his wife to tell her that he was OK. You could see he was smashed.”
Five days later, De Villiers underwent surgery after which the
extent of the injury was made public. The Springbok captain had a full reconstruction of the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments with an artificial graft, as well as a repair of the medial collateral ligament. His hamstring was also torn. Craig Roberts, the Springboks’ team doctor, estimated a recovery period of eight months. That was if, indeed, he recovered. De Villiers would turn 34 in February 2015 and had already entered the twilight of his decorated career.
However, he was not prepared to die with the World Cup dream inside him. His rehabilitation was overseen by Roberts and the highly regarded duo of Springbok physiotherapist Rene Naylor and Western Province Rugby Union strength and conditioning coach Steph du Toit.
“The important thing in such a situation is that you need the player’s buy-in, which we had from the outset. Jean was so determined that nothing would stop him. The easiest part was to get him to train,” Du Toit recalls.
With surgery behind him, De Villiers’ next step was to strengthen his knee so that he could meet everyday demands. The synergy of the muscles had to be repaired and normal range of movement established. However, there is a big difference between being medically fit and rugby fit. The most important thing for someone in De Villiers’ position was achieving a good range of movement and explosiveness. His first step towards that was in the swimming pool before he moved on to low-impact exercise such as rowing and cycling.
“When you work with certain players, you realise why they are Springboks. Jean’s attitude was awesome. We had to pull him back a few times and say ‘Listen, Jean, go and spend time with your family’,” Du Toit recalls.
De Villiers’ long-awaited return to the Test arena came on 8 August 2015 against Argentina in Durban, but it proved an anticlimax. Not only was the Springboks’ 25-37 defeat their first ever against Argentina, but De Villiers suffered yet another injury after being tackled by Juan Martín Hernández. The Argentine flyhalf’s head struck De Villiers on the jaw and put the Springbok captain under renewed pressure in his relentless quest to make it to the World Cup.
The diagnosis was that he would be sidelined for between four and six weeks, with South Africa’s first pool match, against Japan, scheduled for 19 September. In De Villiers’ initial absence, Meyer had also fostered an exciting new centre pairing of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel. These youngsters more than held their own against the Wallabies and All Blacks and, inevitably, public and media increasingly questioned whether De Villiers still belonged in the side.
Meyer, however, stood by his captain and had him pencilled in at inside centre for the Japan clash in Brighton, which will for a long time be regarded as one of the biggest embarrassments in the history of South African rugby. A decorated Springbok side was on the wrong end of a spectacular World Cup upset, with the Cherry Blossoms sealing a late win after a sustained spell of pressure. Blame had to be apportioned and inevitably public opinion was firmly against veterans like De Villiers and Victor Matfield, though neither had played badly.
The De Villiers-led Springboks regained their composure to thrash Samoa 46-6 in Birmingham on 26 September, but it would be his last hurrah. An attempted tackle on Tim Nanai-Williams resulted in a collision between De Villiers’ jaw and the shoulder of the Samoan fullback, who was in the motion of passing the ball.
For a minute De Villiers was in denial before the reality sank in that the dream was over.
De Villiers could do no more than console himself with the fact that his Test career stretched for over a decade. Most importantly, he made it to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, a remarkable achievement even if it didn’t produce a fairy-tale finish.
“I played 109 Tests, 37 as captain and never thought I’d get there. If I had to write down goals at the beginning of my career, it would have been to play 50 Tests. I was privileged and look back with fond memories. When it comes to World Cup tournaments, the reality is that I was just very unlucky,” he says.
Indeed, it felt almost inevitable that De Villiers would eventually be beaten by injury, but even so he retired from international rugby unbowed.
Extract from “The Springbok Captains” by Edward Griffiths & Stephen Nell.
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