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Number 12

by Andy Davis / 22.03.2012

The name Jean de Villiers has become synonymous with the Springbok number 12 jersey. But at the age of 31, with the rise of a bunch of new contenders and a new Springbok coach in residence, Cape Town’s favourite Springbok is no longer a certainty for the position. On the eve of one of the biggest grudge matches in South African sport, the Bulls vs. The Stormers, we caught up with the big man and talked about rugby, celebrity, fatherhood and getting older.

Mahala: How old are you now, Jean?

Jean de Villiers: I’m thirty one.

Getting on, huh?

I think it gets to you in a way and definitely in South Africa people are big time into “they’re getting too old”. But from a speed point of view, I’ve lost nothing, from a strength point of view, I’m probably stronger. So age doesn’t really count.

Might be a bit smarter now.

Exactly. I’m a strong believer that if you’re good enough you’re old enough and that’s it.

Apparently you’re the fastest guy on the team.

Actually second fastest now. I had the fastest time and then Bryan beat my time.

And Gio Aplon doesn’t feature in the top three?

Yeah, he’s next.

I wouldn’t have expected that. When you run you look so relaxed.

I look slow. I’ve just got a long stride. I look flippin’ slow but I tend to run good times.

Obviously you’ve got to be quite diplomatic with my next question but how do you feel about the new Springbok coach and the direction of the team after the big setback of the World Cup?

Yeah, it was a massive downer and when you go through something like that the will to perform when you get the opportunity is so much greater. That’s the way I feel. I think Heyneke’s got the pedigree. He’s been around the block. He’s been with the Springboks before in an assistant role and he’s done really well with the Bulls, so whenever anyone asks me if I think it’s a good decision, I just say if he selects me it’s a good decision and if he doesn’t, it’s not. I think every single guy feels like that. I haven’t worked under him, I’ve met him a couple of times and he seems like someone who is really passionate about rugby and I think whenever that’s the case, when you put rugby first, you’ll make a success of it.

There was a stage when there was no doubt who the inside centre of the Springboks is and I think that was not just Stormers fans, anyone who played the game could see that you were obviously the stand out in that position. Then the World Cup came along and Francois Steyn did really well, until he got injured. How do you feel? Suddenly your place in the team isn’t automatic.

I’ve never really felt that I’m a certainty. No one deserves to be selected for the Springboks, it’s something that you really need to work hard for and it’s a great honour when you get that privilege. In my case, I think even more so now, there’s just so much competition for that position and I always believe that the best people must play. So I’m conscious about that and there are a hell of a lot of good centres out there. I’ll have to really play well to get a starting berth. I still back myself that when I do play my best, I’m good enough to play for the Springboks. Hopefully I can get that opportunity again.

I guess you can’t be complacent.

Exactly. Complacency is your worst enemy when you are a professional sportsman and definitely in the case of rugby being a team sport. You can’t be complacent and you have to really earn that starting birth every single time. You are only as good as your last game and they always say it takes forty/fifty games to build up a good reputation and one bad game to make it all go down again so you’ve got your personal pride to uphold as well.

Coming back to complacency, you’re 31…

Don’t laugh!

You probably earn more money than a lot of people will earn in their whole lives. Theoretically, you can go build a house somewhere and live the rest of your days comfortably. How do you motivate yourself to train and play rugby.

I think, first of all, people have a misconception of what the average rugby player earns. I don’t think it’s a situation where you can just go chill on the beach. We do earn good money, but I think every rugby player, when he’s done with rugby will still have to work to maintain that lifestyle. And I think there’s a misperception with that. Coming back to what motivates me, I always said once I don’t enjoy playing rugby anymore, or secondly when my body can’t handle it, I’ll hang up my boots and say thank you very much. I also believe that when you eventually decide to do that, then it’s the end. There’s no coming back. So it’s a big decision and I want to be sure that when I eventually hang up my boots, that I’ve had enough and it’s time to move on and then I can make a success of the next stage of my life. I want to definitely give international rugby another go because I believe I’m still good enough to make the national team, and probably next year as well, if everything goes well. But I don’t really see myself in the game after that. If I’m still feeling good then I’ll just focus on the Stormers and Western Province. I also see myself in a role where I probably need to give back a bit and help nurture the youngsters coming through and maybe get involved in a different capacity with the team.

But you’ll stay at Province for that?

Yeah, you know I’ve done my stint overseas, really enjoyed it and might look at options overseas again, but that’s not my priority. We’ve got a little child now, two months old, so you want to be close to your family and your friends and the grandmas and grandpas. They’ll probably kill us if we go overseas again.

The lure of playing overseas beyond what everyone can see, the bucks, is there anything else in that package? Do you want to compete against the Northern Hemisphere players? The lifestyle? What is the pull?

Money is usually number one, and you have to be realistic about that because your career is so short compared to other jobs. You want to be able to get as much as you can out of it. But there’s so much more to it than just the money. To be able to base yourself in Europe and live on a different continent, in a different country and get to know people from another nationalities is fantastic. When we were over there, we travelled the whole of Europe and that was great. You’re an hour, two hours away from a bunch of different countries and you get to see so much more.

Jean de Villiers

One of the things that actually prolongs rugby players careers is that you get injured and then you’re out for a while so actually everyone else played fifteen years but you only played thirteen because you had two big injuries. How does your body feel?

I think I’ve been lucky… maybe not. I sort of had all my major injuries at the start of my career. It catches up with you eventually but I’ve been really fortunate in the last couple of years. I’ve broken a couple ribs and stuff like that but nothing too hectic past ‘07 when I tore my bicep in the World Cup. I’m feeling really good and I think it’s because of the longer break we had last year.

Do you think that you’re playing too much rugby?

Without a doubt. As long as the people making the decisions are firstly looking at their pockets and then the players, it’s going to be like that. Unfortunetely the TV rights people they’ve got a monopoly as to what happens. We want to earn more money and the only way we can do that is by getting the broadcasting people on board. I suppose it’s a vicious cycle.

Let me put this out there and you could definitely tell me that it’s off the record if you want it to be, rugby World Cup last year…

No, it wasn’t a forward pass.

Was it a fix?

I’ve never actually thought about it that way and people come up to me and they’ve got these conspiracy theories and then they start saying it was a fix from the start. It’s a tough one. I think that in the ’07 World Cup New Zealand played a little bit better rugby than we did but eventually they didn’t win it. And I think this time around we played really well and I think we were probably the form side in the competition, but we didn’t win it. It’s tough and it’s in the past. What happened happened. Forward pass, you know. It’s something you have to live with and it is what it is, unfortunately.

Tell me about your kid. You’re a father now. Two months in. Are you sleeping now?

Yeah, I wake up every morning and say to my wife “It’s fantastic that Layli is sleeping through every night” and then she tells me she got up four times last night. So I don’t know what this whole fuss is about. Everyone tells you it’s an experience that changes your life and it definitely has changed mine, big time.

Has it changed your approach to rugby at all?

I get this image in my mind all the time where I’m walking on a field with my daughter holding my hand and coming to training with me and everything. But I don’t think it’ll change the way I play.

I take it you still enjoy playing rugby.

Yeah, I do.

It must be terrible if you’re a good sportsman but you actually don’t dig the game anymore.

Yeah, exactly. And I think there are guys who see it as their job and they treat it like that. I’m still enjoying it and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

At the moment rugby defines you, especially in this country when no one lets you forget you’re the rugby player. What other interests do you have? Which direction do you think you’re going to go in?

We’ve got a family insurance business, so I’ve got a 30% equity share in that and will hopefully get more involved with that after rugby. Hopefully through rugby I might get some other opportunities, but it’s something I’m very conscious of. I’ve seen a lot of rugby players struggle afterwards. Hopefully I can make a success of whatever I’m doing after rugby.

I think that’s an issue for a lot of sportsman, where you’re in the spotlight and it’s your whole life and all of a sudden you’ve got to go and do something else and it feels like you died when you were thirty-two, you know?

I think it’s important to be prepared for it. That’s the biggest thing and knowing how to handle it. I think the biggest problem that we have in the rugby culture in South Africa is that there are kids playing rugby and they don’t have proper advisors in their lives. They maybe don’t have a dad or whoever to help them and you’re living this fantastic lifestyle but they’re not thinking about five or ten years later and suddenly when it stops, it’s terrifying. There are guys that are struggling big time just to pay a mortgage on a house or a car.

I think that probably comes back to what I was saying earlier. If you look at a normal oke, we don’t get caught up in the lifestyle and that costs a lot more but for someone who works at the Primi Piatti, a couple of bar in their bank account and they could invest that and that would be good for the rest of their lives.

Exactly. Now suddenly you’re getting good cash, you want to drive a nice car so they go buy a nice car. You’re getting kit for free by your sponsor. Suddenly when you’re finished you have to buy your own clothes. You get the odd meal for free, you have to pay for everything. I think it hits you hard.

And all your friends are still in the system, living the life.

Exactly. And you want to live the good life for as long as you can and for some people it unfortunately doesn’t last. Yeah, so it’s a tough one and it’s something I’m still struggling with as well, to know exactly how it’s going to be after rugby.

You seem quite interested in the innovative and cutting-edge concepts around training. What are the training techniques that you okes are employing now?

I still think there’s a massive gap in rugby for sport psychologists, the mental part is vitally important, and we’re not there yet with that. A psychologist can help to take your excess baggage, all of your stuff going on at home and work through it because a lot of the time, what’s happening at home is definitely influencing the way you play on the field.

We’re not there in SA rugby yet?

No. I’m lucky in my life, I had my dad and I had my parents really helping me and supporting me in every single way that they can and I’ve got a really strong family. But there are kids coming through who grew up with no parents. Who had members of their family die in their arms… things like that. I mean that’s not stuff that you just get over. That has a massive impact on your life and you need to be able to work through it and that’s why I said, I’m one of the older guys in our team at the moment and I try to be there for some of the young kids and hopefully can add a bit of value to their lives.

Do you want to coach?

I always said that I would like to. I think it’s a really tough job in South Africa and, again, to be away from home so much. I see myself maybe getting involved with the academy and helping the younger guys do skills training. Something like that.

South African media tends to go quite easy on sports people. But when you go to Europe and especially Australia and New Zealand, the journalists are a lot harder on the players and the game.

A lot of the time they just focus on the same thing. There won’t be someone that will ask something totally out there, it’s always the same questions and one oke just writes exactly what the other oke writes. It’s not often that we actually see guys with different views. You might as well just read one article and everyone will agree with it.

So it’s not really giving much insight into the game and I think that the journalists are scared that the okes are not going to get access anymore. Like that oke asks kak questions let’s not invite him.

It’s a tough one. I’ve sometimes thought that I’ve had one of my best games and then when you read the article they just rip into you, that’s something I sometimes don’t understand. They’ll rip into a oke that I actually think played well and everyone will just agree with it.

How important is it not to get in shit with the media? How do you blank that out?

I think it’s very important. But it’s up to you, if you want to be on Twitter or Facebook and read all the articles that they write about you then you have to be able to take the good with the bad. When they write bad stuff about you and they write that you had a bad game, majority of the time, that’s what happened. No one likes to read that they played badly and as much as you like to read when you played well, if you can’t handle it then don’t read it.

Do you read it?

I do sometimes but also there are sites that I just don’t go onto because I don’t like the people involved and then I just won’t read it. You expose yourself to what you want to expose yourself to.

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