Cape Town – First prize for injured Springbok captain Jean de Villiers is to win his race against the clock to play at the World Cup from September ... but even if he fails in that quest, his domestic first-class career may yet extend for a bit longer.
Read Part One: EXCLUSIVE: Jean recalls horror
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Sport24, the veteran centre confirmed that whether he claws back to earn further action in the green and gold jersey or not, 2015 would see the curtain come down on his lengthy Test career which began in 2002 and currently comprises 106 caps.
Perhaps a little unexpectedly, though, the 33-year-old spoke with some enthusiasm about “wanting to keep playing rugby for as long as I can”.
He has also offered his views on such topics as the “Newlands v Cape Town Stadium” debate and the likely restoration of All Blacks Tests to the city’s roster soon, despite significant support in the region for the visitors.
Effectively a one-club man in terms of his domestic loyalty to the Stormers and Western Province – though he had a short stint abroad for Munster between 2009 and 2010 – De Villiers desires “representing my union at Newlands again”.
Winning the Currie Cup, for example, has been an elusive goal for him, as he has tasted defeat previously in the final and also been sidelined by injury (in 2012) when Province beat the Sharks in their own Kings Park den; he travelled as a non-playing member of the WP party and earned a winners’ tankard afterwards.
De Villiers revealed that there is even a chance he might be able to contribute to another assault on the all-SA silverware again later this year, if he just fails to reach the required level of fitness in time for the World Cup squad selection but is ready soon afterwards for slightly lesser demands back home.
“It’s interesting ... I don’t know the exact dates, but let’s say I don’t make it back for the World Cup: there might be scope for a bit of a Currie Cup campaign for me. It would be sad if I don’t get to play at Newlands again.
“The reality is I might have already, but I would like a few more games there. Because I’m absent for this (Super Rugby season), I will definitely (also) consider another season with the Stormers.
“I would love to end off on my terms, even though last season I did have the good fortune to play a likely last Newlands Test against Australia, score a couple of tries and enjoy the moment with my daughters out on the pitch afterwards.
“I do want to keep playing rugby for as long as I can because once it’s over it’s over ... I still love it, or else I wouldn’t be going through all this again (injury rehabilitation) to work my way back into it.”
The Paarl-born competitor would also like to remain in rugby in some capacity once he does, eventually, hang up his boots completely.
“In some capacity, yes. (How) I might serve the game after I retire, I don’t know. Coaching? In South Africa it’s a really, really tough job and I don’t know if I would want those levels of pressure.
“Plus (for a coach) it’s the same lifestyle, really, as it is for the players, so on the family it’s very taxing. You’re still away a lot. I do want to stay in rugby, but not travel as much as we do at the moment.”
De Villiers says Stormers fans in 2015 should expect significant alterations in the way the side is led in his absence, by newly-appointed Bok colleague Duane Vermeulen.
“(It’ll be) very different! You know, Duane and I are two totally different people and it will mean difference from a leadership point of view as well. Every captain is different to the next or previous one.
“Duane will lead strongly by example; he had an unbelievable season last year and I think it will go really well. He has led the team before, and the guys have big respect for him, so I’m sure he will make a success of it.
“Like any captain you need a good leadership group around you, and he has Juan (de Jongh) who led the charge to the Currie Cup, and a couple of others. Someone like Schalk (Burger) also comes back soon with loads of experience and it’s nice to have someone like that alongside you who you can lean on for help with decisions and just that support you need.”
Asked whether he believed the 2015 Stormers would be strong enough to challenge for a top-six spot and thus playoffs role, De Villiers replied: “Yes, I’d hope so ... but you also learn over the years just how hard to predict Super Rugby can be.
“You sit at the start of a year and say ‘this team won’t be strong this season’ and ‘those guys will be right up there’ ... and then all too often you are proved totally wrong.
“We have lost a couple of vital players to overseas clubs (like Gio Aplon, Pat Cilliers and Deon Fourie – Sport24), but then again we gained a lot of experience in a successful Currie Cup.
“Never under-estimate the effect on confidence – though I don’t mean over-confidence – when you win Currie Cup and a new breed of players stick their hands up. There’s a new leadership group as well, and I’m excited to see what they can do.”
De Villiers is almost as much a “nearly man” in Super Rugby as he has been in the Currie Cup: I suggested to the normally upbeat character that he had looked unusually glum and shell-shocked after the home semi-final reverse to the Sharks in 2012.
“I was ... seeing as we had done the hard work of topping the overall log that year. We all felt it was our time for the title, and if we’d only won that game we were set for a Newlands final (against eventual champions the Chiefs).
“On the day it just didn’t work for us (in a 26-19 loss). It was a tough one. The Sharks have given me a couple of big disappointments, of course, if you include the home Currie Cup final defeat we experienced in 2013!
But that’s sport ... you take it on the chin and move on. It’s still grim when it happens, though.”
What was his reaction recently to the announcement by WP Rugby that they intend staying at Newlands, rather than make the much-publicised possible shift to Cape Town Stadium in Green Point?
“Look, I love Newlands. I grew up watching rugby there, and it seems like they have a good plan for the stadium going forward.
“So I’m sure a decision was made taking into account a sound business model and also including the sort of history attached to it, and making rugby decisions. Cape Town Stadium is also an unbelievable venue, don’t get me wrong, and we’re blessed to have two great stadiums in the city.
“If a way can be found for us to play at both, then I think that is possibly a (good solution).”
He also favours the signals from SA Rugby that Cape Town is likely to return to favour as a potential host for All Blacks Tests from 2016 onward, after a period in which the Highveld venues have dominated for New Zealand -visiting purposes -- partly influenced by a controversial lobby of swollen Cape support for the current world champions.
“Getting them back in Cape Town again would be wonderful ... I won’t be playing in any of those Test matches, of course, though I can fondly recall my first ever Newlands Test (De Villiers’ 15th cap, in 2005 – Sport24) was against New Zealand, when we beat them (22-16).
“Hopefully we can use the opportunity to slowly convert those who do still support the All Blacks to backing South Africa. We’re still growing as a country, and must all work together to make it a better place.
“We will get there: it’s not about squeezing it, it’s about the process we’re going through as a country and hopefully we can convert everyone to supporting Bafana, the Proteas, and the Springboks.”
*There will be one further instalment of the De Villiers interview, focusing on some Bok-specific issues, on Wednesday.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing