Bok captain: provincialism dead

Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)

Cape Town -- Dismantling of provincial divisions has been a contributing factor to the Springboks’ upward trend of late, says skipper Jean de Villiers.

The near 33-year-old, who continues to spiritedly defy the ravages of time, was speaking in an exclusive interview with Sport24 during the Stormers’ Super Rugby training camp in the Hermanus vicinity this week.

Here is the first instalment of the two-part chat ...

You are perceived by many at home and abroad to have notably blossomed into national captaincy ... have you possibly surpassed even your own initial expectations?

Obviously when you are first asked to captain your country it does come as a bit of a surprise. It’s been a genuinely fantastic two years, I must say, and so enjoyable seeing the growth of the team and how they’ve come together as a (unit). So being involved in that process and seeing the team progress every year – even visible on a weekly basis at times – has been deeply satisfying. Looking back on the two years ... I guess it’s not the way I had once thought it would pan out but it’s been so enjoyable and I have been really blessed.

You are Stormers captain again in 2014: does dual captaincy have advantages or drawbacks?

Ja, it is a tough one, that. You do want to have a mental break at some stage. Definitely at the end of last year I felt very tired mentally and really needed some time away from rugby and the luxury of switching off a bit. Being the Springbok captain is a lot more than just running out in front on the Saturday and making a couple of calls on kicking for goal or kicking for the line! There’s lots of responsibility off the field and people want a lot from you ... not that I’m complaining. It’s about getting the balance right between putting in the effort there, and at home with your family. Doing a good job as leader of the Stormers is obviously right up at the top, too. I’ve always tried to be some sort of leader in every team I’ve played in. I feel I benefit from that from a playing point of view as well, when I’m contributing in decision-making and so on. Yes, people say that maybe I should rest from the Stormers captaincy but when you’re enjoying something, why change it?

An overseas writer recently said you’d helped put a smile back on the face of Bok rugby ... have you tried to bring any special personal hallmarks to your leadership of South Africa?

There’s not something I’m specifically aware of or set out to do. But I think that’s my personality and every captain tries to bring his personality to the party. Perhaps that’s come out in the way I lead the team. It’s been made easier because Heyneke (Meyer) and the management team have created a suitable environment in the Springbok squad. The players have been (empowered) as well ... we’ve sort of put our own touch on Bok rugby. Don’t forget that after 2011 there was a big change in personnel; I was involved before and now I’ve been captaining the new crop. It gives me something to relate to. I think the enjoyment factor is coming through more and more in the way we play.

Would it be true to say you never allow things to get too serious, in life or rugby?

I would like to think I do it that way, yes. Having said that, now that I’m a dad and more senior (rugby player) maybe I go for the serious side of things just a bit more than in the past! I find myself lecturing the younger guys at some stages. But the key thing in sport or life, when you are entrusted to make decisions, is to have a clear mind and be in control of your emotions. Then you will usually choose correctly. That’s what I try to do. In dealing with referees, for example, you must be clear in your mind about what you want and not just blow off steam and have a go at him – I’ve never seen a ref change his decision after you’ve screamed at him. 

Provincialism, and associated cliques: for many years previously that issue bubbled not far away from the Bok squad. Are you confident it’s been largely dismantled now?

Oh, I’ve got no doubt about that. I started with the Springboks some 12 years ago and at the beginning perhaps there were still some embers of it. But as I began to play with greater regularity for South Africa, after a couple of years and with John Smit as the captain, you started not to notice provincialism. It may sound (trivial) but guys would start visiting each other for holidays, for instance, and it didn’t matter whether you were a Province bloke meeting up with a Sharks or Bulls player or whatever; we’ve become friends. You go to a wedding and it’s not just a Stormers player getting married; plenty of guys from other franchises will be invited. That’s a fantastic thing; Springbok rugby must be something everyone aspires to and (buys into) as a bunch ... you want an environment you enjoy going to and don’t have to be put off by possible cliques and so on. I’ll be very happy if we can continue like that.

You have probably defied sports scientists’ and critics’ fears by getting through the volume of rugby you have in recent seasons and despite advancing age ... is it perhaps a pleasant payback for the various injury disruptions you had in earlier years?

Yes, I do view it that way. Some people reckon I may be a 32-year-old in the body of a 28-year-old because of all those early setbacks. I firmly think age is just a number: it’s more about how you feel within yourself, how you respond to training, and how you feel hunger-wise in game situations. I’ve played something like 60 games-plus in the last two years, yet I really am still feeling good. Besides, I don’t have many years left ... I want to make the most of them and be as successful as I can. Bottom line is that I prefer being on the park to being in the stands.      

*The second and final part of Rob Houwing’s chat with Jean de Villiers, including such topics as the restoration of his midfield alliance with Jaque Fourie and Victor Matfield’s much-publicised comeback, will be posted on www.Sport24.co.za tomorrow.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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