Cape Town – A discernible changing of the guard in Springbok playing personnel after a World Cup is an established trend ... but national captain Jean de Villiers has some special fears about the expected migration of several leading stars to overseas clubs later this year.
Part One: EXCLUSIVE - Jean recalls horror
Part Two: Jean may stretch WP career
In an exclusive interview with Sport24 while he goes about his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury to try to make the RWC 2015 cut in the UK, De Villiers said the exodus was threatening to be more acute this time – and not just to feature players on the receding end of their careers, as has been the general norm before.
“It does seem that this time around, if you can believe the rumours floating around, that more players are looking to go abroad than after 2011 (the New Zealand-staged tournament).
“Whereas that year we had quite a few guys retiring, finishing up (at Bok level), there weren’t as many switching shores.
“The players people are speculating about as departures for abroad this time are often younger ones, ones with plenty still to offer.”
Names that have been speculatively bandied about in the media include older warhorses like the Du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismarck, Duane Vermeulen and Flip van der Merwe – all either beyond or very close to 30 by year’s end – but also more youthful customers like Jan Serfontein (currently 21), Eben Etzebeth (23) and the 25-year-old Willie le Roux.
De Villiers warned: “We have to try everything possible (to keep them SA-based), but the reality is there’s lots of attractiveness to club deals overseas.
“Money is obviously the biggest driver, and getting this injury just reminded me again: your career could be a short one. You want to make the most of it, cash in while you can.
“If you know you can earn double abroad, then it’s tough to stay. I also had the opportunity to do a stint in Japan, and it coincided with me getting the Bok captaincy ... I decided to stay because of that huge honour; it’s not something you can give up on.
“It outweighs the money, even though that would have been really good. SA Rugby is trying to put things in place to (ease) the trend but it is difficult with the weakening rand and struggling economy – let’s just hold thumbs we can keep our guys here.”
While he realises his race to be fit for RWC 2015 carries no guarantees of success, De Villiers says he is emboldened by the “unbelievable loyalty” coach Heyneke Meyer has shown to him.
“We’ve struck up a really good working relationship ... it applies to the whole Bok camp; it’s a great bunch of current guys. Not just good rugby players, but good people.
“It used to always hurt me when others around me got injured, and now I am experiencing that support you desire.
“(Bok team-mate) Adriaan Strauss rang me just this morning – I got a voicemail; I couldn’t take the call at the time. Just those calls, those texts, mean so much. Almost daily, I’ve had different guys ringing to ask how things are progressing.
“I’ve been blown away about what good people we are surrounded by at Springbok level, but also more broadly.
“I realised how special the world bond between rugby players is: I’ve had texts since the injury from All Blacks, French, Irish, Welsh, Italian players ... former players or current players that I don’t even necessarily know that well. Even referees have sent messages!”
Has he had the chance to chew on why the 2014 Bok calendar year, with defeats on the European tour to both Ireland and Wales, ended on a less satisfying note than the previous one?
“That is a difficult question ... look, I thought we were simply beaten by a better Irish team on the day (in Dublin). They were really well prepared and had a couple of tricks up their sleeve.
“They saw some weaknesses in our team – not in individuals, but things that we slipped up on. Not major issues, and areas we fixed within a day, but they did expose them and credit to them for that. For some reason we always struggle a bit against Ireland, at least since I’ve been playing.
“The Wales match? It was just a terrible game. I don’t think the Welsh were great; we were just terrible. Probably the best thing about that fixture was that I got injured so got to skip the after-match press conference ...”
Asked about his own, increasing midfield partnership in Tests with Jan Serfontein -- an alliance not without criticism, given that both are really better suited to inside centre – he said: “The more we played as a combination, the more I felt it started to (gel).
“Being interchangeable is a little more difficult; you don’t have a set sort of role as a 12, or out-and-out 13, but we did get some good success with it as well.
“There are good other guys coming through, too. Damian (de Allende) got his opportunity last year and he probably gets a bit more game-time in my (slot) for the Stormers now, which will only boost his development.
“The good thing is there is still so much scope for improvement, and I think Jan is also just getting better on the international stage with experience. We learn from each other along the way.”
The captain concedes that in his absence, Super Rugby 2015 may see other South African midfielders come to light: “That could happen, without a doubt; the more contenders the better.
“I want to get right, and be the best. If I’m not, then the next guys coming in ... hopefully they’re 10 times better! It only makes the team stronger, and that’s what we want.
“We want South Africa to win the World Cup, whether I’m a role-player or not. I definitely want to be there, but it’s not the Jean de Villiers show.”
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