Schalk Burger (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – Several of them have done incredibly well just to boast long-haul plane tickets for Friday ... if they manage to light up the World Cup itself they will inspire the Springbok team-mates around them, and the nation.
These are the SA squad’s “desperados”, if you like: players who have defied strong odds for various reasons in gritty – yet ultimately successful – quests to be at RWC 2015.
How they fare in individual performance terms could be what makes or breaks the Bok campaign over the next few weeks, and possibly also defines Heyneke Meyer’s tenure as coach, given that he has pinned extraordinary levels of faith in them in some cases.
Here is a seven-strong selection of men in the party (the resilience of Fourie du Preez and amazing longevity of Victor Matfield deserve honourable mentions, too) who have flirted with termination of their Test careers at differing points within the last year or two ... but clawed back for more, on the grandest stage of them all:
The zealously competitive loose forward, who seems to have no switch-off button, enters RWC 2015 almost certainly as the individual from anywhere on the planet gracing it against the most severe of expectations. After writing off 2012 with a knee injury, in early 2013 he picked up a calf injury that led to surgery, during which a hospital stay saw him contract bacterial meningitis. Burger admitted the Grim Reaper had briefly beckoned: “I was seriously ill. Some people around me thought ‘this is it’.” But Burger came through, and began a slow, patience-testing comeback – initially many, many kilograms below his normal fighting weight – which included gentle rambles in Newlands Forest. Now 32, he is playing pretty much as well as ever ... a feat acknowledged a few months ago with the mantle of Laureus World Comeback of the Year. Wouldn’t a second RWC winner’s medal be perfect climax to a fairytale?
Jean de Villiers
Not quite a story as remarkable as Burger’s ... but close. In the advanced stages of the Boks’ last fixture of a typically gruelling 2014 season, De Villiers collapsed in a groaning heap on the Millennium Stadium turf. “My foot was basically next to my ear,” he later revealed to this writer – all the result of another ghastly cruciate knee ligament tear (not his first) and accompanying torn hamstring. The national captain’s RWC 2015 dream hung by a thread; so did his career, it seemed. But De Villiers quickly resolved to battle back, and embarked on a determined, sometimes murderously taxing crusade to regain fitness in time for the jamboree. His quest was so focused, inspiring and intense that it even inspired a three-part television documentary, Jean de Villiers: Road to Recovery. Then after some necessary tastes of rugby activity for both WP and the Boks, De Villiers’ comeback was further bedevilled by an inconvenient jaw-break against Argentina, which took him off solid food for some time. But the popular leader makes the trek to England, even as questions swirl over precisely how he will be fitted back into the starting XV.
The then-rookie Bok ran the risk of irreversibly damaging his Test career in 2013 when he was ditched for “repeated breaches of team protocols” ... rumoured to have included lapses in punctuality and dubious commitment to fitting culinary habits for a professional athlete. But the broad-smiling utility prop – who could possibly not like his quirky try celebration method? – has progressively, diligently worked his way back into good favour. He may well be in the conditioning shape of his life after the Bok pre-RWC camp, from which many players emerged leaner, and travels to the UK heartened by his own solidity against the Argentinean “bajada” at scrum-time in Buenos Aires in mid-August, when he earned a rare loosehead start ahead of Tendai Mtawarira.
Jannie du Plessis
In a situation aggravated in no small measure by the crazy amount of rugby he had been subjected to for several seasons at both Bok and Sharks level, Du Plessis by the end of 2014 looked dangerously close to a spent force in green and gold after eight years’ service. Decent-quality younger tightheads – like Frans Malherbe and Julian Redelinghuys at the time – were finally starting to emerge, threatening his long-time first-choice status. Instead the 32-year-old doctor, benefiting from better management, has discovered possibly the form of his life for the country this year. Not only has he scrummed powerfully, but also become far more conspicuous in carrying, and banished at least some reservations about his tackling style and commitment. In short, he seems indisputably the top man at No 3 again.
Pieter-Steph du Toit
One cruciate knee ligament tear is horrible enough for an emerging forward gem ... doing it all over again the next season pretty much amounts to lightning striking the same place twice. In the immediate aftermath of his second disaster, in a Super Rugby match in Bloemfontein in March this year, headlines inevitably screamed: “Du Toit out of World Cup” as it appeared another lengthy, arduous rehab awaited him. But then a few days later he was miraculously given a much better chance of fighting back in time for a maiden RWC ... and here the 23-year-old dynamo is, a possible dark horse for Bok excellence at the event, whether at lock or blindside flank.
Like the naughty schoolboy who accidentally found the teacher’s nose with a wayward acorn from his “catty”, Steyn looked as though he might have been permanently banished to exile by Meyer – once so partial to him -- when he infamously missed touch with a late, supposedly relieving penalty in a nail-biting 2014 Test against Australia in Perth ... and the Wallabies duly cashed in to nick victory with a counter-attacking try. But after almost a year in Bok isolation, the seasoned pivot’s dead-eye placekicking skills were considered just too tempting to ignore for the RWC party – even if he probably ranks only No 3 in the flyhalf pecking order and may not add too many more to his 59 caps at the tournament.
When the Boks discovered the unpredictable charms of Willie le Roux at fullback in mid-2013, it seemed as if the widely-perceived “robot” in the last line of defence would retreat purely to franchise-level rugby. But with Le Roux nursing an injury, Kirchner made a first start in 22 months against Argentina in Buenos Aires and reminded at the very least of his “safe” qualities in the comfortable win. If the weather turns wet and wild during the World Cup, don’t write off an extension to this new lease on life at No 15 for the uncomplaining 31-year-old who fits a conservative game-plan like a glove.
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