Jean de Villiers: I can’t see a big margin in opening Test

Former Munster centre says rugby can be a shining light in a dark time

The moral quandary of whether sporting events should proceed amid a pandemic has been revived by the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa to a backdrop of a deadly third wave of Covid-19 along with the poverty- and politically-driven rioting and looting.

There’s no entirely right or wrong answer really, but there’s no doubt that sport, a wonderful irrelevancy in the greater scheme of things, is a source of distraction and relief.

"Yeah, very much so," says the former Stormers, Munster and South African centre Jean de Villiers, who was part of that brilliant Springboks team which won the World Cup in 2007 and both the Tri Nations and their series against the Lions two years later.

“We’re absolutely delighted in a way that this series is going ahead but it’s also with the hope that nothing bad happens to anyone because of this decision to continue with the tour.”


Positive spirit

De Villiers, looking as young as ever on a video call with The Irish Times yesterday, lives in his home town of Paarl, in the Cape Winelands about an hour from Cape Town.

“It’s taken South African minds away from all the bad. There are riots, we’ve been stuck in a Covid environment for 18 months and suddenly we have live rugby on TV and we have the Lions, which is always a massive event in South Africa.

“Yes, the stands will be without fans but it’s a big thing, and being able to see the Boks play for the first time since they won the World Cup creates a much more positive spirit, and so many times in the past we’ve seen rugby play a critical part in providing a shining light in pretty dark environments sometimes.”

Of all the defending World Cup champions the Lions have faced in the professional era, none can rock up for the first time so intact 21 months on. But it’s hard to know how they’ll perform.

“It is, because there’s not much to base your opinion on. If anything you have to feel that the Boks will be a little under-cooked and that’s why, as we saw in that A game, they have reverted back to a very basic game plan, trying to get physical and set-piece dominance with a massive work-rate in defence.

“Can you win a series playing like that? It will be difficult to do that three weeks in a row. Add to that, if they fall behind, will they have the ability to come back?

“That’s also why the first Test is so important. But all the bad going on at the moment will definitely be an added motivating factor for them to really go out and be that shining light on Saturday. I’m still hoping for a Boks win just because of all the emotion that goes with it but if that is the case, I can’t see there being a big margin in this game.”

De Villiers’ last time in Ireland was in November 2017 to witness Ireland’s 38-3 win over South Africa which, as the Chasing the Sun documentary highlights, was a seminal moment for the Springboks. Rassie Erasmus, there strictly as a Springboks fan, left the ground and told Jacques Nienaber afterwards that they had to back to South Africa to resuscitate the team.

“Yeah, it was kind of a defining moment for them,” says de Villiers, who had a different experience after leaving the Aviva Stadium with Ronan O’Gara and Alan Quinlan.

“Rog, Alan and myself nearly got into a fight with other people stealing our cab post the game.”

Comfort zone

That match also marked his first trip back to Limerick since his season with Munster in 2009-10 to meet up with some of his former team-mates, Barry Murphy, Paul O’Connell, Iain Dowling and others.

“We absolutely loved our time over there and it was great to go back and have a couple of pints with some of the lads.”

Reflecting on his season there, de Villiers says: “I think it was just a change for me. You get so used to doing things in a certain way and suddenly going to Munster you were taken out of your comfort zone and there were no other South Africans there when I arrived.

“Suddenly you’re sitting in a room with guys who you played against at Test level, seeing the way that they think about the game, and debating about the right ways to do stuff. I honestly feel it rejuvenated my career in a way and then making friends with people for the rest of my life was fantastic.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times