When the eighth edition of the Rugby World Cup kicks off on September 18, 2015, Jean de Villiers will be 34 years old. The big question is, taking health and fitness into account, will he still be playing for the Springboks?
But more pertinent, will De Villiers be playing for the Springboks one year from now? Or could this week, in London ahead of the England game, be the last we see of De Villiers in Bok colours?
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer spoke at length about the tough selection choices he’s had to make this season, because of so many injuries to key players, but he admitted it would be nothing like the difficulties he’s going to experience next year. The reason: a bunch of experienced men, such as Bismarck du Plessis and Schalk Burger, are set to return to action and push for places in the Bok team, while a bunch of other stars, who’ve been based overseas, could also come into the reckoning.
Meyer will all of a sudden have to consider all these men, including Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie, both based in Japan, but he knows he also can’t just dismiss the efforts of a very promising younger generation that has emerged this season. Men like Eben Etzebeth, Marcell Coetzee, Jaco Taute and then there are those players who’ve grabbed their chance this season with both hands: Adriaan Strauss, Ruan Pienaar, Francois Louw, Duane Vermeulen.
“I’m going to have so many 50/50 calls to make on so many players next season ... it’s going to be the toughest part of my job,” admitted Meyer this week. “Do I stick with the youngsters and the guys who’ve done so well this season or do I go back to the experienced guys, the men with the reputations, when they’re ready again?
“There are some crucial decisions I’m going to have to make and as daunting as it is, it’s also exciting.”
One of those decisions will surround De Villiers – the key man in so many respects for the Boks in 2012. He was never Meyer’s first-choice man to lead the side, but when, one by one, Victor Matfield, Du Preez and Burger became unavailable for whatever reasons, De Villiers was the obvious choice to lead the side. He has been a revelation as Bok skipper ... assured, comfortable and inspirational.
But will this be enough to keep him in the green and gold beyond next weekend?
One wonders what would have happened to De Villiers this season had a Matfield, Du Preez or Burger been available to lead the side and had Frans Steyn not got injured and had Fourie not made himself unavailable to the Boks because he was having such a fine time in Japan? And one can now rightly ask what will happen next year – two seasons out from the World Cup?
Meyer admitted he would have to find his “core group” by the start of next season and stick with those men until the World Cup, making only a few additions and changes along the way. Does De Villiers feature in that group, considering he is now already 31 and a clutch of younger centres will be knocking hard for inclusion in the Bok set-up come next season and in 2014.
Firstly, Meyer appears to favour Frans Steyn at 12 and should he become available, Fourie would slot straight back at outside centre. He is, after all, the world’s best 13. Then there’s the big and powerful Taute, just 21 and a player much liked by Meyer. Juan de Jongh, 24, will surely be hitting prime in a year or two and then there are those who’ve suggested Pat Lambie should play at 12, freeing Meyer up to play Elton Jantjies or Johan Goosen at flyhalf. JP Pietersen is also a midfield option.
Other candidates going forward will include JJ Engelbrecht, a man already used in the midfield by Meyer this season, while a few days ago he also mentioned the names of young SA U-20 players, Francois Venter and the very impressive Jan Serfontein, as stars of the future.
De Villiers played in his 83rd Test on Saturday, a mainstay of the Springboks for the last 10 years. But with a younger, stronger and possibly quicker crop of centres coming through, and available to Meyer in 2013, the sands of time may just be running out for one of the nicest guys to have worn the Bok jersey ... and captain the team.
Ultimately it will be form, and not age, that decides De Villiers’ fate, with Meyer having to decide whether he’s done enough on the playing field in 2012 to warrant consideration next year.
Could Saturday have been the last we see of De Villiers the Bok? Possibly.