Cape Town – Somehow the sight of captain
Jean de Villiers being carted off on a medical buggy, clearly in considerable
pain and with oxygen supply close at hand, seemed to sum up the Springboks’ sudden
midfield cloud for next year’s World Cup.
It was learned on Sunday from Bok doctor
Craig Roberts that “significant damage” was done in Saturday’s broadly
depressing 12-6 defeat to Wales in Cardiff to a left knee the veteran centre
has already had major surgery to.
Not only did he dislocate the kneecap in
the gruesome but entirely accidental event at a breakdown just before the start
of the last quarter, but major ligament damage has already been provisionally
diagnosed through scans as well.
Even as the fullest orthopaedic verdict is
awaited back in his home city early in the week, it seems pretty clear that
“several months” will be De Villiers’s best forecast for recovery – and rugby
folk know all too well that the more serious knee injuries can require up to a
year of patience-testing rehab or, in worst cases, even force retirement on the
As things stand, the 33-year-old has some
nine and a half months at his disposal ahead of RWC 2015, which begins for the
Boks against Japan at Brighton Community Stadium on September 19, although he
would naturally need at least a reasonable amount of game-time ahead of it to
recapture suitable form and confidence.
As much as you want to be optimistic for
the plucky, globally respected character who has bounced back from great
personal mishap several times before, it is difficult to be that for the time
As Bok wing of the 2003-2007 era Ashwin
Willemse – still only 33 himself and his own career cut massively short through
injury – lamented in the SuperSport studio after the Millennium Stadium
reverse: “It will be a very tough road for Jean psychologically to get back
(for the World Cup).”
That event is earmarked as the WP and
Stormers favourite’s swansong in rugby, and a potentially fitting one as he has
been jinxed for a few prior cracks at the Webb Ellis Cup.
His presence at the English and
Welsh-staged jamboree looks touch-and-go at this point, at best.
Heyneke Meyer has invested strongly and
faithfully in De Villiers since his acceptance of the national coaching reins
in 2012 and, especially in the first two international seasons, his skipper has
largely repaid that faith with sound performances and popular, almost
unfailingly astute leadership.
It is probably true to say that this year
has been De Villiers’ flattest of the three performance-wise; he has most often
been defensively resilient and alert in midfield, but a little lacking in his
more regular adventures of yesteryear over the advantage line.
But the captain has also been ridiculously
overplayed at all levels of the game in recent times to bring on some inevitable
mental and physical tiredness, and smarter management of his load next year,
had he been fit for its duration, might
well have borne fruit for the World Cup.
The best-case scenario from here is that an
enforced break for him in Super Rugby (at least?) next year does him plenty of
involuntary good and he also recovers in appropriate time to be beautifully
Spare a thought for De Villiers’ beloved Stormers
franchise, by the way, as they invariably have some sort of pre-season disaster
afflicting a key Super Rugby player: it was exactly the case a year before this
when Eben Etzebeth badly injured an ankle also in the final Bok fixture of
season, against France in Paris, and was sidelined for many months.
Only a few days ago, Meyer was saying that
De Villiers is his only certainty for the event; as things stand, then, there
are no certainties at all for South Africa!
Ironically, it is at centre where the Boks
have perhaps most gone blunt in recent Tests even before the De Villiers
disaster – something that has had a damaging ripple effect on their general
ability to construct crisp tries.
Many critics have rounded on Meyer for his
regular fielding of – in the shape of De Villiers and Jan Serfontein –
essentially two inside centres; the Bok backline play as a whole has
increasingly gone too lateral, predictable and indecisive and the wings have
been catching the proverbial colds on attack.
Compounding the De Villiers setback, in the
couple of days ahead of the Wales clash another stalwart customer in Jaque
Fourie – one of those cerebral men of the No 13 channel who brings vital
“feel”, instinct and direction to situations, even if he is also no spring
chicken – surprisingly revealed that he was no longer available to the Boks
after 72 caps.
It had been assumed he would be in the RWC
frame next year, and it should not be forgotten that in the corresponding
fixture against Wales in Cardiff last season, when the Boks won, Fourie was
responsible for a game-swaying bit of brilliance when he swivelled, inches from
the left touchline, to provide a magical infield off-load to Fourie du Preez
for the scrumhalf to streak away for a try.
The Boks possibly surrendering both Fourie
and De Villiers now for the World Cup means that a massive 178 appearances
between them – rich experience if ever that existed – could be stripped from midfield
There are some decent enough replacement
options, although there have been more vacancies than solutions created at
centre over the last year or so if you throw in the walkout in a relative huff
of single-minded utility back Frans Steyn and also the brutal demise of
defensively questionable JJ Engelbrecht.
The 21-year-old, but at least now 20-Test
Serfontein will be a strong candidate to take up his more natural No 12
position if De Villiers is sidelined for a long time or even permanently,
whilst Damian De Allende is increasingly being groomed into Bok ways.
Players like JP Pietersen (outside) and
Handre Pollard (inside) also possess the gift of backline versatility for Bok
centre consideration, whilst currently outside the squad mix are Juan de Jongh
(Stormers) and S’bura Sithole or Paul Jordaan (Sharks) who have their
supporters even if Meyer may still be resistant over their smaller physical
Nevertheless, considering the De
Villiers-Fourie upheaval of late, it is impossible not to escape a feeling that,
with RWC security next year in mind, peace pipes may just be offered both to
Fourie and the more prickly Steyn in a quest to lure these known world-class
customers back into green and gold for depth purposes.
And we all know how the best “talking” to modern
professional rugby players is done ...
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing