THERE’S still plenty of bruising around his right eye and the stitches on his brow are clearly visible ... Jean de Villiers was just one of several players who bled for his country last weekend.
And, just a little lower down, on his right cheek, there’s the scar from April 23, 2005 when Blues centre and bad boy Rua Tipoki floored the young Stormers man with a punch during a Super 12 match at Newlands.
De Villiers has come a long way since making his Springbok debut in 2002. He’s now the national captain, the 54th to lead South Africa. His injuries are well documented; those that struck him down in his first Test against France and the ones which crippled his 2003 and 2007 World Cup campaigns, but he’s always come back, stronger and more determined.
Considering he’s spent so much time on the sidelines it’s quite remarkable he’s actually played in 73 Tests – right now the second most experienced player in the team behind Bryan Habana, who has 75 caps.
A year ago, though, he would have been one of the senior men, but not close to being on top of the pile. He admits things are quite different in the Bok set-up now that Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, John Smit and Fourie du Preez have moved on.
“It is a bit strange, seeing all the new faces and realising the guys you’ve always seen at the Boks are no longer there,” said De Villiers. “Last year we had eight, nine, 10 guys in the squad who’d all played well over 50 Tests, now there are only three of us, Bryan, myself and Ruan Pienaar. It puts a little more pressure on myself and the leadership group, but these things happen in rugby, players and coaches come and go.
“Also, while we may have lost several experienced men, all the guys who’ve come in now have put their hands up and are ready to play for their country ... we’re one team. And that’s the beauty of Springbok rugby, we can play against each other on the weekend, and even throw the odd punch, but when we walk off the field afterwards and shake hands and put on a Springbok jacket, we’re one team, a Bok team. And with all these changes and new faces I suppose it’s the start of a new era.”
Indeed it is, with Heyneke Meyer now in charge and several new faces making up the Springbok squad. And, of course, De Villiers being the new captain.
“I’ve captained sides before, but being Bok captain brings a whole lot of different responsibilities to the position, but I’m honoured to be in this role and I’ll take whatever is thrown my way. Looking back though and realising John (Smit) did the job for eight years ... I’ve all of a sudden got a new respect for him. I mean, hell, he went through a lot with the team and it just again shows what a great leader he was. I’ve definitely got big boots to fill.”
Meyer has appointed De Villiers just for the three-Test series against England after which he’ll decide on whether he’ll stick with the Stormers man or look to someone else. “I’m going to do my best to hang on to the job, it would be a great honour, but that’s not my decision and I understand and respect that,” said the 31-year-old.
He says being named Springbok captain as the greatest moment and highlight of his career and admits the butterflies were going wild in the build-up to last weekend’s Test in Durban. “They went a bit mad in my tummy, as was the case with everyone in the team. There was a lot of tension in the squad last week. We hadn’t been together for long and we all wanted to do well for the new guys and the coach.
“And, of course, me being captain for the first time made it even more tension-filled. I just wanted everything to go right and to start with a win. We did it in the end, but that first half wasn’t too good. There was tension out there and we didn’t play as well as we should have. Fortunately we were able to turn things around after half-time.
“But there’s a long way to go, we’re going to be building for a while, trying to get better and better and improve in each Test.”
After tomorrow’s showdown in Joburg it’s off to Port Elizabeth next weekend to wrap up the series. Then it’s back to Super Rugby for the Boks before the new-look Rugby Championship gets under way. It’s an awful lot of rugby.
“It is (a lot),” says De Villiers. “And it is tough, but we’re professionals and this is the route we’ve decided to take. We take the hits week after week, but we’ll always get up again.
“I might be getting on a bit so I’m taking my career year by year. I’ve got two more years left on my Western Province contract and then I’ll see where I am. I’m definitely not going to go overseas again. I spent a season at Munster (where he ironically replaced Tipoki) in 2009 and I’d encourage all players to spend at least a season playing overseas. I enjoyed it a lot, but I’m done, I’ll end my career here.
“I’ll know when the body can’t take it anymore and I’ll know when I don’t get goosebumps before every Test. I still get that feeling now, after 10 years of playing Test rugby. When that feeling’s gone that’s when I’ll call it a day.”