By Chris Hewitt There’s just something about Jean de Villiers. Perhaps it’s his ability to throw audacious double-skip passes with ease, create a gap or run the perfect angle.
Maybe it’s the fact that his status as a rugby player is perhaps only matched by his reputation as an entertainer. Whatever it is, his performances have been one of the highlights of the 2005 Vodacom Super 12 campaign for the Men in Black.
No matter the number on his back, De Villiers has showed his quality. From his double in Canberra as a wing to his display two weekends ago against the Blues where, picked in the midfield, he was a magician, inspiration, creator and try scorer. Despite his efforts, the loss to the Blues finally sunk the Investec Stormers’ semi-final aspirations.
To aggravate matters, De Villiers was on the receiving end of a punch that required lots of stitching and he missed out last Saturday’s game against the Chiefs. He is, however, back at outside centre for Saturday’s game against the Cats at Newlands.
“It has been a really disappointing season, there’s no denying that.” De Villiers says. “We’ve tried so hard to make it work, and as is always said, we don’t go onto the field to lose. We’ve been playing our flippin’ hearts out, but it hasn’t come right for us. It’s gutting, but I can’t put my finger on the reasons we’re under-performing.”
It’s a question many fans would have mulled over recently, especially when reminiscing over the pre-season expectations. The Investec Stormers were predicted by many as being one of the favourites for the title, and De Villiers feels that pressure may have contributed to the underachievement.
“The expectations on us winning this year were very high, and that made the pressure to win immense. You don’t want to disappoint your team-mates, your coach, your fans, everyone. But we have, and that’s the let down for us. We have the players, everything really, and the way it’s turned out is just so frustrating.
“I don’t think we did that badly overseas. The competition is so tough, though, that one or two points make the difference in a game. Three of those games and you’re out of the competition. It could have gone our way, but it didn’t. Where we’ve let ourselves down is in the last two home games.’
Ultimately, coach Gert Smal has become the man many blame for the below par performances. Smal is in his fourth season as coach of the Investec Stormers, and his status as Springbok assistant coach means he’s regarded as the best forwards coach in the country. Despite the criticism, De Villiers feels that Smal is not the sole reason the side currently occupies 10th spot on the log. “I feel sorry for Gert. South African mentality dictates that when a team does badly, the coach takes all the blame. He’s got the best winning ratio of the four South African coaches in the Vodacom Super 12, and he hasn’t become bad overnight.
“The coach and the players must equally take responsibility. That’s the key, it’s a shared responsibility.” De Villiers is equally defensive of backline coach Carel du Plessis. “Carel’s made a big difference to my game, he’s definitely one of the best backline coaches. He gives the players great ideas, and he listens, which is good. I’ve enjoyed playing under him.”
De Villiers knows, however, that the backs have not performed anywhere near potential this campaign. In previous seasons, the forwards, with particular emphasis on the tight five, have been targeted by opposition coaches as the weak element of the side. This year, bizarrely, the roles have been reversed.
‘This year the forwards have played well, and the backs have been disappointing. It’s a funny game this, and in two months you can just lose it and not have the reasons why.’
De Villiers has publicly expressed his preference for the midfield, particularly inside centre, but with captain and Bok incumbent De Wet Barry in current possession of jersey 12, De Villiers is happy just to be able to call himself a centre.
‘There’s a big difference between 12 and 13. 12 is more of a playmaker, whereas 13 is more of a runner off the ball. I started off my career at outside centre, and always preferred there until I tried inside. At this stage being at centre, be it 12 or 13, is good enough right now.’
Except for the Blues and Highlanders matches, De Villiers has played every match on the wing, the jersey he wore for the Boks as well. De Villiers feels the emphasis on speed and one-on-one confrontation has developed him as a player, but won’t be volunteering to return there anytime soon.
“I’m a better player for my stint on the wing. The weaknesses in my game have improved, particularly my speed. At U21 level, I was the fastest in the Bok squad. I ran the 40m in 4.90sec, but my knee injury set me back. From last year, though, I’ve quickened up a lot. But to be honest I won’t mind if I never wear the No 11 jersey again.”
Even though semi-final chances are now over, the Investec Stormers know a few victories will make that failure slightly more stomachable. De Villiers is adamant that the squad will be approaching the remaining games with fierce determination.
“We’ve got to look at our game. It’s now time to play good rugby and score tries. At least that will be some consolation to our fans. We’ve always had the ability to score tries, so maybe we’ve taken that for granted a little bit and focused too much on defence.”