From 109 Bok caps to the World Cup to season-ending injuries, Jean de Villiers has seen it all.
Independent Media rugby writer Wynona Louw sat down with Jean to find out what it’s like being on the other side of the camera, which rugby player quickens his pulse and what life is like after rugby.
So Jean, tell me a bit more about your career after rugby
“Because I’ve been involved in rugby all my life, I thought it would be good to see if I can achieve success in something else. Because of the relationship I’ve developed with Citadel, I was offered a position to look after the national philanthropy division.
“My involvement with SuperSport as an analyst keeps me involved in rugby – at a bit of a distance because you’re not involved with a team per se – but you can still live out your passion on weekends.”
What does your position with Citadel involve?
“Basically it involves charitable giving and also to help with the amazing projects that are under way in the country, in terms of creating opportunities and skill development, so it’s an unbelievable privilege to know what people do across the country, you never hear about it. It’s people who really make a difference in people’s lives and an essential difference in the country.
“The big thing is to just give people hope. When you play for the Springboks you can see that yes, you play rugby, but it’s also a platform where you can give hope to people, and that’s so important in our country. So I have a different platform now, but I can still spread hope, maybe not through what I do, but through making people aware of what other people are doing. And that gives me hope for our country.”
When did you decide to try your hand at television?
“It’s something that I always thought about, I’ve always had a good relationship with them (SuperSport), and it’s a nice way to stay involved with the game. This past weekend marked a year since I first joined the set.
“The difference is of course that you’re on the other side of the camera. I’m used to being asked questions as a player and now suddenly I have to ask the questions at times, and those questions can be from different angles. You have to be better prepared for these questions.
“I’m enjoying it, and at the end of the day you just want to give the public your opinion on the game, and maybe give an opinion that’s going to draw them closer to the team than what your viewer at home can see.”
What has been the most difficult part of working in TV so far?
“Last year it was very tough to give an opinion on the Springboks, and to be very critical on individuals or on the team was tough, because I also went through it. I lost so many times in the Springbok jersey, and you know how difficult it is to handle.
“But then again, the viewers aren’t fools, you can’t lie to them. So there has to be an element of criticism. But I believe in constructive criticism rather than getting personal and attacking someone.
“This weekend was so nice, just to see how the guys played and see the positive effect the Springboks have on South Africa. And that responsibility as (a) player is a big one – it’s not just playing for 80 minutes, people’s lives are affected by the result.”
How does the rush of being live on air compare to the rush of running onto the field?
“It’s two different worlds, I think the rush of running onto the field in a packed stadium and just doing what you love with friends, it’s tough to replicate that. SuperSport is something else, it’s a different pleasure and to be able to be part of that allows you to stay involved in the game, but I don’t think it will ever have the full effect that being a player has.”
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced after rugby?
“What I realised is that it doesn’t matter for how long you played rugby and whether you were successful or not, there are a lot of challenges after rugby, and that’s what I struggled with, and I think it’s something many professional athletes struggle with.
“You spend so long in a certain environment and then you leave that environment and you have to start a new career. I don’t have any tertiary education, the skills I have I learnt through rugby and the people I’ve met.
“So suddenly you start a new career and then you have to compete with a 21 or 22-year-old who maybe has a degree already. So it’s tough, but luckily for me the relationships I’ve built through rugby created opportunities for me on a few levels.
“I’m still an ambassador for a few charities and a few companies, so I try and stay as busy as possible.”
What’s the biggest lesson you learned during your rugby career?
“The biggest lesson I’ve learnt in rugby is that life doesn’t always work out the way you think it will. Things will happen that will turn your life upside down, but you have a choice to give up, or you can decide to fight it.
“To make a mistake isn’t failure, as long as you can learn from it and try again, then you grow. In my career I learnt the most not through the victories, but through losing and through injuries. That makes you realise what’s really important in life – the people that change your life and the people that help you get through it. And it’s no different in the business world.
“Things are going to happen that I’m not ready for, but if I surround myself with the right people and if I can apply that fighting spirit in a business environment as well, you can emerge from it successfully, or what you deem to be successful.”
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened on air?
“Towards the end of Super Rugby last year the Sharks played against the Sunwolves at Kings Park.
“I was in the studio on the Friday night with Shimmy (Hanyani Shimange), Xola (Ntshinga), and Nick Mallett. My son was very sick and at that stage they didn’t really know what was wrong with him and they suspected Kawasaki disease (a rare disease in which blood vessels throughout the body become inflamed, first described by Japanese paediatrician Tomisaku Kawasaki).
“So when the crew asked how he was doing, I told them that the doctors thought it could be Kawasaki disease. After the game, we discussed what the Sunwolves could do to improve in Super Rugby, and we all gave our opinions. When we got to Nick, he tried to say that the Sunwolves should develop their own players to strengthen Japanese rugby.
“Riaan Viljoen was at fullback for the Sunwolves that day and Nick said ‘for the Sunwolves to improve they need fewer Viljoens and the need more’ and then he went down the Sunwolves team sheet and he couldn’t pronounce one name, and then he said ‘they need more Kawasakis’!”
Are there any players that excite you at the moment?
“I like focusing on South Africa, and I think there are quite a few guys who put their hands up. After the first two Tests (against France), it was great to see the guys coming into their own. A guy like Elton (Jantjies), who was perhaps under pressure, on Saturday brought unbelievable calmness to the team, and I thought Warren’s (Whiteley) leadership was fantastic.
“I think Siya Kolisi has grown unbelievably this year, as a player, as a captain, as everything, and he was great on Saturday. And then Malcolm Marx, he had a great game and he’s built like Bismarck du Plessis, but the one guy I really enjoy and I think it’s important to understand his background is Ross Cronje.
“He made his debut and I think he fitted in so well, as if he’d been playing Test rugby for years.
“Him and his twin brother (Guy, who was diagnosed with melanoma in 2015) played rugby together at No 9 and 10 since they were kids, and when we did an interview with Ross after the game on Saturday, he said he was playing for two. And that means a lot to me, to get to know the person behind the rugby player. And knowing that a guy like Ross can still perform and that there’s a higher purpose behind it is quite special to me.”
What do you miss the most, and the least, about rugby?
“I miss the team environment the most, just being able to spend time with your friends, on the field and off the field. But what I definitely don’t miss are the injuries, the sore body, the pain, those kind of things you don’t miss easily.”
Tell me one thing that very few people know about you
“I’m scared of thunder. I’ve always said if I had to play a game and the thunder or lightning started, I would walk off the field, doesn’t matter if it’s the World Cup final, I’ll walk off the field.
“We played one Test against Argentina in 2015 and it started raining and storming, but luckily it didn’t happen.”
If you could change one thing in rugby, what would it be?
“If there was a way to make the right calls more often on the field – how that will be achieved, I don’t know. But too many times a call is made in a match and it costs a team the game. So, if there was a way there could be more fairness with regards to that, that would be great.
“Referees have a very difficult job though, so I don’t know how.”
Are you pleased with the path that Robbie Fleck has taken the Stormers on?
“Robbie was thrown into the deep end when Eddie (Jones) left and I think he’s done an amazing job. This year he had more time with a very young team and more time to stamp down the kind of rugby he wants the team to play. I think he’s done very, very well. The reality is it is a young group and they’re probably not going to win Super Rugby this season, but they have definitely improved since last year.
“Now they just need to get that consistency. It’s going to take time, but I think the way they’re playing is a great improvement.”
Looking back on your career, were you not frustrated that a player with your skills was often used as a crash-ball centre?
“At the end of the day, each player gets selected to perform a certain role in the team. Whether mine was to do that or whatever it was, I think that’s your responsibility. But in that, a player should also have the freedom to play what he sees in front of him.”
All Blacks or British and Irish Lions, and why?
“I think it will be an unbelievable series, but I’m a diplomatic person – I support my school, my university, my union, my province, my country, my hemisphere, and then my world as opposed to a different planet.
“So I back the southern hemisphere, although a few guys I’ve played with in Ireland are in the British and Irish Lions group, but I’ll stick to the southern hemisphere.”
Do you think Ernie Els can win another major?
“Ja! He can, he’s my hero. Again, like I said about Ross Cronje, I think Ernie is such an amazing golfer and I think he’s probably one of the best athletes South Africa has ever produced.
“But people write him off so easily. When he won the Open in 2012, nobody gave him a chance and then he did it, so it just shows the determination that he has. And he’s such a big rugby fan and he’s a big supporter of the Springboks, so at least we’ve had the chance to enjoy some wine together.
“I think he’s a great ambassador of South Africa, and if he can win something again, great. Otherwise the younger guys should come through and win it for us.”
Thanks for the chat, Jean. Finally, any message you’d like to give the Stormers for the last few rounds of Super Rugby?
“I think my message would be just to keep it consistent – if they continue to play this nice brand of rugby and manage to be consistent, they’ll have the best of both worlds.
“I think they’re doing great and Fleckie is doing an amazing job and, to be honest, I don’t think I can tell them anything that would add much worth to what they’re already doing.”