Cape Town – Jean de Villiers knew he was in major trouble when he noticed the strangely contorted position his left leg was dangling in, on the Millennium Stadium pitch.
“My foot was basically next to my ear, which is more than a bit (disconcerting),” he recalls ruefully from the restaurant/bar area of an upmarket hotel here, where he has been making routine visits to a physiotherapist’s rooms as part of his plucky quest to make the cut, perhaps against the odds, for World Cup 2015 participation.
The Springbok captain, 33, suffered one of rugby players’ biggest curses, tearing of anterior cruciate knee ligaments - among other damage - in his team’s final Test of 2014 against Wales in their Cardiff stronghold in late November.
Yet his walk, amazingly, looks encouragingly orthodox as he approaches for the rendezvous, some seven or eight weeks after the sickening setback and already deep in the throes of his rehabilitation mission.
I remind him that his scream, as he crumpled backwards in ungainly fashion at a breakdown, was clearly audible off microphones from the television in my living room almost 10 000 kilometres away: is the pain, upon immediate impact, even possible to describe?
He sighs, reflecting for a moment: “You know, the pain is possibly a bit less than the emotions that go with it. I’ve definitely had worse injuries pain-wise (he has ‘previous’ in terms of the cruciate bogey – Sport24), but that feeling ... I’ve played through it in my brain quite often ... you actually have a split second where you just know it’s about to happen, and then it does.
“You know you’re in an awkward spot in terms of your body position and there’s nothing you can do about it. It comes with trying to steal at the breakdown: you are vulnerable, head down, your legs are a bit open, and a lot can go wrong there, whether it’s knee, shoulder, neck or whatever else.
“And I knew immediately that the cruciate was gone ... immediately!
“Usually in the past I’ve been pretty good at looking at my injury straight away and doing my own mini-assessment, so when the medics get to me on the field I can just about tell them what’s going on.
“But this time around, because of the position I ended up in, I just couldn’t give it a second look ... I’ve re-run it on YouTube several times and the way this (his left) leg was stuck in a weird position, foot very close to ear: my initial thought was that I had done an actual leg break, or physically dislocated my knee.”
De Villiers remembers that the worst pain, curiously, came from elsewhere: “It was my hamstring ... I tore that in the process, though luckily not a complete rupture.
“There was a lot of nerve damage, and everywhere from my back down was painful. When the medics arrived I said ‘please just give me something for the pain’.
“So they fed me the oxygen, and I’m not quite sure why but it feels so nice and helped me a lot; I wouldn’t mind that every day!”
It is gratifying to know that the veteran midfielder and skipper’s natural humour hasn’t deserted him, but were his first rugby thoughts as the incident happened “there goes my RWC 2015”?
“No ... I thought ‘it’s my last game ever ... it’s the end’. Even when Johan van Graan, our assistant coach, got to me before I was carted off, I said to him ‘gee, I didn’t want it to end like this’.
“He’s a very positive guy and said ‘don’t worry, it will work out’. I still thought I wouldn’t be playing rugby again, and let’s be honest, that may still be the situation. With an injury like this, it’s the reality.
“But in a very short space of time, my emotions and thought processes changed a lot ...”
In other words, De Villiers was back in his trademark, glass-half-full territory.
Still, though, he admits being more than a bit irked the setback came in the very last, infernal game of a long year.
“Fifteen minutes to go! I suppose injuries never come at the right time; when they do it’s terrible, full-stop. My own timing has been a little bit bad in the past, I’ve found ...”
World Cups and a fit Jean de Villiers, of course, have all too seldom been agreeable bedfellows. I ask him if it is being overly bleak if I hazard a percentage chance at his recovery for the 2015 event at ... say, 45 percent?
“It’s so hard to tell. I don’t want to put a date on it, put a percentage on it. I just want to give it a crack. I have one go at it. I’m a positive person by nature, and I am motivated as well – I believe if I put my mind to this I can do it.
“The thing with me is, I don’t just want to go to the World Cup; I want to win it. I want to know I am good enough to be selected for it, and I want to win it with this group (of players and management).
“Just going to the World Cup ... I don’t know if that will be enough for me. If I am selected I want to know I am good enough and will make a positive impact. If not, I must just say that I gave it a good old crack and it didn’t work out.
“I won’t make any promises now, nor will I put a gun to anyone’s head. But I know what I can do, can still achieve.
“All the people involved in my rehabilitation, from medical people through to coaches and the Bok and WP set-up, the support has been unbelievable. All of that helps.
“The surgeon, the physio ... they’re very happy with where I am on the journey as we speak, and so am I. It is impossible to even set weekly targets on something like this at the moment; every case is different.”
Is he the type of player who recovers the necessary mental conviction fairly quickly to play again after serious injury?
“Well, with modern methods (in rehab) you find you simulate so much of what will happen when you actually take to the field again, that by the time you get into a match situation, you really are ready for it.
“But I guess it differs; sometimes you will start out again more confident than other times. You can’t pre-empt it.”
If clouds have silver linings, then how about the possibility that sitting out an entire Stormers campaign in Super Rugby might carry certain benefits in refreshing De Villiers, knee fitness permitting, for one last RWC assault?
“Yes, it will. I have really taken the last six or seven weeks off, doing nothing apart from the (physio/rehab). No gym work, upper-body work. So the mental break has been good from a rugby point of view.
“From a personal side? Maybe not that great, with all the (uncertain) thought about rugby in the future swirling in my mind, and the third addition to our family: I’m getting a lot of rewarding time with them, but just not a whole lot of sleep!
“Injury rehab is a lonely place, very lonely, and it will really click in when the other guys get back into the Super Rugby agenda this year. But the fact that I’ve been through all this before helps quite a bit.”
Does he realistically think he will have to play at least some rugby before the World Cup itself, or might the often less demanding group fixtures upfront at the event serve usefully as his chance to filter his way back in, effectively buying him more time?
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get closer to it. I will obviously be sitting down with WP, SA Rugby, seeing where my progress is at. Then if there need to be games, I need to play. I just want to be in a position, as I said, where I can actually be selected – if that’s not playing at all (beforehand) then fantastic, but it’s not my decision to make.”
*There will be further instalments, tackling a variety of topics, on Tuesday and Wednesday
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