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Pain and triumph

The Rugby Centurions Podcast will feature many of the game’s biggest names, men and women who have breached the remarkable benchmark of 100 international caps. Their wisdom, tales, achievements and regrets will regularly be shared on The XV.

Laying stricken on the turf after less than seven minutes of his Springboks debut, before being taken off on a stretcher, Jean de Villiers didn’t know whether he’d play another game of rugby again. Forget 100 Tests, the doubts crept in that he’d ever play one more. But it says everything about the man that he would recover to win 109 South Africa caps, a World Cup winners’ medal and captain his beloved Boks.

When De Villiers made his Test debut against France in Marseille in November 2002, he was a 21-year-old with a head full of dreams. But it very soon turned into a nightmare with a potentially career-ending knee ligament injury.

“To be able to drive to the stadium in Marseille and sit in the team bus and see all these legends of South African rugby, I thought of sitting in the classroom at school three years prior to that and watching these guys on TV and thinking, ‘I want to do that one day’. I had to pinch myself and say that they are my team-mates. It was pretty crazy,” De Villiers tells The Rugby Centurions Podcast.

As a 21-year-old, you think, ‘How can this be possible? How can this be fair? Why did it happen to me?’ But, to this day, I still tell people it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me in my career.

Jean de Villiers on his Test debut injury

“I can remember singing the national anthem and just a range of emotions going through my body and then it’s the kick-off. It was a moment that you’ve always dreamed about. It took me just under seven minutes to get my first experience of Springbok rugby and actually be part of a piece of playing the game. I made a made a tackle in the outside channel, got up again and tried to jackel the ball. My foot got stuck in the ruck and I got twisted. I was lying on the turf in Marseille with a hell of a lot of pain because two ligaments in my knee were off and I got stretchered off the field.

“Now, when you dream about playing for South Africa, you’ve got this idea, you get to score three tries, be man of the match and win the game… and suddenly I’m there, don’t really have any influence on the game after being stretchered off some seven minutes into the game, so a totally different experience than what I’d envisaged. As a 21-year-old, you think, ‘How can this be possible? How can this be fair? Why did it happen to me?’ But, to this day, I still tell people it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me in my career.

“The reason I say that is because I caught it pretty easy up until then, played all the age-group levels provincially and nationally for South Africa. Always in the A team, was never dropped. I didn’t play Super Rugby, I played one Currie Cup game, then got selected for the Springboks and made my Test debut. And suddenly I was lying on the turf and being stretchered off on a buggy.

“I had to work really hard to get back, get my body in shape to be able to play rugby again. Through those difficult times, and through the nine months of rehab, I really grew as a person. It established how important it is to really work hard to get to what you want. And you don’t know what the end-product will look like. You don’t know what success will look like eventually. But luckily it worked out for me.”

Jean de Villiers
Jean de Villiers scored 27 tries in his 109 caps for the Springboks (Photo by Geoff Caddick/ AFP via Getty Images)

That wouldn’t be the last major setback to the centre’s glittering career, though. At the 2007 World Cup, he tore his biceps in the Boks’ opening match against Samoa and took no further part in the tournament. He still got a winners’ medal, but it was a bitter pill to swallow.

Then, in 2014, he dislocated his left knee against Wales, tearing the ligaments so badly that he needed artificial replacements and knee reconstruction surgery. Yet he recovered to lead his country at the 2015 World Cup, only to be struck down again when he suffered a broken jaw in the Boks’ second group match against Scotland. Without those horrendous injuries, the 40-year-old might well have set a international cap record that even Alun Wyn Jones would struggle to match.

Jean de Villiers
Jean de Villiers is congratulated by New Zealand’s Richie McCaw after winning his 100th cap for the Springboks (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

De Villiers was inspired to play for the Boks after watching Jonah Lomu steamroller Mike Catt from the stands at Newlands in that epic World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and England in 1995. And Newlands holds a very special place in De Villiers’ heart, having played for Western Province and the Stormers for the vast majority of his career, with brief sojourns to Munster and Leicester. That’s why his 101st cap for South Africa, in 2014, turned out to be more memorable than his 100th, which was against New Zealand in Wellington.

Suddenly I’m in this surreal situation where everything I love is literally in one place, captured in one day… I probably should have retired that evening.

De Villiers on his 101st cap being played at Newlands

“I saw the late Jonah Lomu run over Mike Catt, that literally happened right in front of me,” said De Villiers. “So you have all of that and then I suppose year after year, the dream just grew more and more to one day play for South Africa. Eventually, I got that opportunity, and played so many games for Western Province, the Stormers and South Africa at Newlands.

“My last Test match at Newlands was my 101st, against Australia. I was able to run out on to the field with my two daughters by my side and my wife was in the stand, pregnant with our son. My parents were there, my brother, my friends, I scored two tries and we won the game (28-10).

“I can remember walking around on the pitch post-game with my two daughters just playing around and thinking back to those first days when I was a little kid, hoping to one day play for South Africa. Suddenly I’m in this surreal situation where everything I love is literally in one place, captured in one day, and all hosted by Newlands stadia. That was the most amazing game in my life and I probably should have retired that evening. When you ask what Newlands means to me, it’s literally a lifetime of experiences and memories.”

The Rugby Centurions Podcast will feature many of the game’s biggest names, men and women who have breached the remarkable benchmark of 100 caps. Their wisdom, tales, achievements and regrets will be shared on The XV each week.

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