De Villiers: Treadmill won’t stop
Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - There are many similarities between Jean de Villiers and Conrad Smith, not least the fact that they are the respective, widely-lauded 'brains' of the Springbok and All Black backlines.
Both are also yeoman servants of the Test arena, as evidenced by the fact that De Villiers sports 93 caps for South Africa over the course of some 12 years and Smith 75 from around 10 years of international duty thus far.
For the record, the latter will join De Villiers in 32-year-old status on Saturday.
The sands of time should really be dictating that they are relatively long shots for another crack at a World Cup – the 2015 one in England and Wales – but these midfield magicians almost appear immune to decline.
Less than two years out from the RWC get-together, De Villiers and Smith are arguably as influential as they have ever been and can pretty confidently be tipped, based on champagne Castle Rugby Championship form and elsewhere this season, to make the cut as valuable elements of their teams’ armoury.
Or will they both?
I ask the question because one of them – and unfortunately it is not our own national treasure De Villiers – is going to have a clear advantage as things stand to preserve his shelf life to that red-letter year.
Smith ended the pulsating Ellis Park title decider last Saturday not only victorious (though it was not for lack of trying by the similarly majestic Bok skipper De Villiers) but also satisfied in the knowledge that his presumably fairly battered body had just begun one of those fashionable New Zealand 'sabbaticals' of several months – a tasty offshoot of central contracting in that country of key Test figures.
So he will play no part in the dead-rubber (and frankly stupid, stale-beer?) extra Bledisloe Cup game against Australia in less than a fortnight, and also sit out the All Blacks’ end-of-year tour of the northern hemisphere, only making a re-appearance into high-level rugby early in the next Super Rugby season.
It is just the sort of recharge a veteran combatant in the modern game needs to ensure fresh physical zest and mental vitality down the line, but at this stage there seems no special plan to make any similar allowances for De Villiers.
He is caught between the old South African phenomenon of a rock and a hard place: the ever-insatiable, dual needs of "club and country", if you like.
Thank goodness, a morsel of sanity prevailed on Wednesday when De Villiers was named on the bench only by Allister Coetzee
for the influential last Currie Cup round-robin clash of the season against the Sharks in Durban on Saturday night.
He has been so glaringly over-played at all levels this year that this must feel just a bit like the granting of a Balinese or Mauritian holiday to him (though watch old Murphy’s Law intervene ... don’t discount that he is forced onto the park for the rest of the derby in the fourth minute!).
And if he does just get a happy maximum of, say, 20-25 minutes of game-time, there may well be a naive belief that he has cleared his body and mind of fatigue, voila, and will be raring to go for the semis and possible final and then also be fit as a fiddle for the Boks’ three-game European expedition.
Of course you can’t blame De Villiers, as loyal a "Province man" as you will find, if he has an instinctive, highly competitive eye on Currie Cup glory even through the fog of 2013 weariness.
He has something of a big-event injury jinx, is desperate to experience lifting either the Super Rugby or Currie Cup trophies at (or at least for) Newlands, and tragically missed out on the glow of last year’s slightly unexpected domestic conquest in Durban because he had a hamstring problem and only travelled to the showpiece as a motivating, but non-playing element of the WP squad.
Deep down, even Bok coach Heyneke Meyer
probably knows that his skipper could really do with all of November off, but long-term considerations will be steamrollered once more, no doubt, by the shorter-term employer and public demand for optimum win-percentage stats by the national coach.
The one hope I have is that perhaps De Villiers won’t play all three Tests this time: looking at the itinerary, you would like to think that the Scotland middle game, in particular, could feasibly be won without De Villiers at No 12 or at the front of the troops as they come out from the Murrayfield tunnel.
Apart from the fact that there is only a six-day turnaround from the Scottish clash to the tour finale against France in Paris, which would also be no special help to the ageing De Villiers, it could also represent a perfect opportunity to gauge the 80-minute credentials of young Jan Serfontein, whose nine Bok caps thus far have all been as a substitute.
At least that would look something like the start of a necessary (surely?) plan to cocoon the captain from time to time in the quest to push him safely through to RWC 2015.
Not too long ago, in an extended interview with SARU boss Jurie Roux
, remember, he had told Sport24 (and before the All Blacks’ retention of the Championship): "It (central contracting) is a no-brainer ... it gives them an advantage.
"It will probably keep them No 1 until we get it right."
Meanwhile, the uncomfortable fact remains that as far as 'management' to the next World Cup is concerned, Conrad Smith has the jump on Jean de Villiers already, alas ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing