Johannesburg - H.O. de Villiers, one of the greatest rugby fullbacks of all time, died this week aged, 76. Mike Greenaway pays tribute to a legend that re-invented fullback play.
The pressure on the young fullback about to make his debut for South Africa was off the scale. His nose began bleeding in the warm-up behind the Kings Park posts for no other reason than excruciating nerves. Back in the change room, his legs threatened to buckle underneath him until one of the seasoned veterans of the team, John Gainsford, flung a burly arm around the 22-year-old and whispered words of encouragement until composure was restored.
After all, this was minutes before what Danie Craven had billed as the most important Test match in Springbok history since it all began in 1891.
It was 15 July 1967 and the Boks —so long either the best team in the world or rivalling the All Blacks for the unofficial crown had lost eight of their previous nine Tests.
This was utterly catastrophic given that in the amateur era the Springboks seldom lost and certainly not in a calamitous sequence that culminated in Craven, the doyen of South African rugby, demanding victory from the Boks.
And tightening the lid of the pressure cooker was the chilling fact that their opponents that day were a brilliant French side that had conquered all of Europe.
Craven had selected eight new caps for this almighty match, one of whom was Henry Oswald “H.O.” de Villiers, our debutant earlier described…
The Springbok annals trumpet the magnificent Springbok victory that day, with no player more heralded in the 26-3 rout than De Villiers, who nailed four conversions and a penalty but, more significantly, astonished the French with his flamboyant counter-attacking play they had never before encountered.
The French language has a lovely word for it — panache — and ironically it is that word that epitomised H.O. de Villiers that day and throughout a career that resembled a shooting star — burning brightly, often incandescently, but extinguished far too soon because of crippling injuries.
H.O. played in a cavalier fashion that was not typical of fullbacks of the amateur era. Until he broke the mold, fullbacks had been conservatively regarded as gatekeepers whose primary function was to tackle or field the ball and kick it to safety. But with De Villiers, this last line of defence approach was revolutionised into the first line of attack because of his unprecedented willingness to run the ball back at the opposition, and with his athleticism, he more often than not ghosted past them to set him up an attacking beachhead for arriving reinforcements.
H.O. de Villiers. one of Dale college finest and @VillagerFC finest. one of first true attacking fullbacks, he change the game. guy who love to take on the line and make havoc. some called him a "10 playing 15". people go to Newlands to watch "H.O." also mentor for Percy. R.I.P. pic.twitter.com/Gf4fgDRzXM— Oom Rugby (@Oom_Rugby) February 20, 2022
One moment in that match has been described by many who were present — there was no television — as the greatest thing they have ever seen on a rugby field: the ball was kicked from inside the French half towards De Villiers deep in the Springbok half... he sprinted towards it... without slowing down he stretched forward to gather it with his finger tips and scorched through the French defence before neatly grubbering towards the tryline for flank Piet Greyling to gather for a screamer of a try.
After the final whistle of his debut Test, it took some time for the day’s tumultuous events to sink in for De Villiers.
He later said: “When it was all over I couldn’t quite grasp what had happened. I slipped out of the (celebrating) Springbok dressing room and went out onto the field to look at the scoreboard. For a long time, I just stood there and stared at it. Only then did I really accept the fact that I was a Springbok, that a dream I had cherished since childhood had become true.”
De Villiers was even better in the second Test, a 16-3 victory for the Boks in Bloemfontein, with the famous writer AC Parker praising his “dashing running” and his bravery, which included diving at the feet of Frenchmen about to kick “like a daring soccer goalkeeper.
The Free State fans were so taken by De Villiers’ daring-do that at the final whistle they rushed onto the field and chaired him off the pitch.
The third Test was won by France at Ellis Park and that meant the fourth Test — at De Villiers’ home ground of Newlands — had to be won or drawn if the Boks were to seal an unexpected series win over one of the greatest French teams of all time.
H O De Villiers— Andrew Campbell (@ADC_CapeTown) February 20, 2022
We all have hero’s from our youth. HO De Villiers was mine. They talk about generational teams - he was a generational player. Charisma, power, flair, a players player - what a man!
Redefined full back play, at an international level. Gravitas personified. pic.twitter.com/TSr9MrLsqz
As if scripted by Hollywood, an incredibly tense Test match came down to De Villiers nailing a penalty — Morne Steyn-like —to draw the match 6-6.
Aah, Newlands and H.O. De Villiers! The two were synonymous in the late ‘60s and the first half of the ‘70s. It was De Villiers’ playground in the blue-and-white hoops of Western Province and many of the fans that came to watch him were hardly there for the rugby.
De Villiers, you see, was rugby’s first rock star, and bobby-soxed teens teemed into Newlands to adore him long before Bobby Skinstad was even born.
Fans would wear tee-shirts with “H.O.” emblazoned on the front to the ground and they would chant “run, HO, run” and he would respond by running the ball from anywhere and everywhere.
Tall, dark and handsome, De Villiers had Skinstad’s robust good looks and the gentlemanly manner of Patrick Lambie, an alluring cocktail that women found irresistible and men envied while deeply respecting him.
De Villiers had a humble manner that was neatly summed up in a television interview he gave in 1989: “I took the running approach because I enjoyed the game so much. To me, to kick the ball out was a waste of time and I enjoyed trying to beat opponents and I think that earned me a lot of support among the public. Many people enjoyed seeing me beat the opposition but there were many more that enjoyed seeing me get dumped!”
H.O. de Villiers, in typical fashion, runs the ball back while playing for Western Province against Greg Davis' 1969 Wallabies https://t.co/DClZm2UA1p— Dan Retief (@Retief_Dan) February 20, 2022
De Villiers would play just 14 Tests for South Africa, his last at just 24 years of age.
Knee injuries almost literally crippled him — he ultimately had 15 operations on his right leg and five on his left —and robbed him of his explosive speed so that while he played on for a while for Western Province, he was rendered too slow for international rugby and he retired altogether at 29.
Fact File — H.O. de Villiers
Born: 10 March 1945 in Johannesburg
Died: 20 February 2022 in Cape Town.
School: Dale College.
Higher Education: University of Cape Town
Province: Western Province (38 caps)
Springboks: 14 caps