Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – A portrait of a true people’s leader is painted of Jean de Villiers in a new book titled Springbok Factory: What it takes to be a Bok.
Author and journalist Liz McGregor spent two years behind the scenes in the national rugby set-up, making observations and interviewing various role-players (including umbrella organisation SARU) at length.
In a chapter specifically titled “The Bok Captain”, she describes veteran centre De Villiers, who became the 54thcaptain of South Africa when installed by Heyneke Meyerlast year, as “engaging and clearly very bright … and there is a deep humanity to the man”.
The Paarl Gym product, who will earn his 89th cap when he leads the Boks into battle against Argentina in Mendoza on Saturday (21:10 SA time), is compared with World Cup-winning predecessor John Smit for “the same largeness of vision (and) political awareness and generosity of spirit”.
The book also details the way the 32-year-old, who has been in enduringly good form for the Boks, comfortably embraces the various, differing cultures within the Bok camp.
It quotes De Villiers as saying that the racial and linguistic diversity of Western Province, his long-time home franchise, helped him feel at home during his stint with Irish club Munster, where the team was made up of various nationalities, including Irish, French, New Zealand and Australian.
McGregor writes: “These differences fed the Irish ‘craic’, or banter, which is what differentiates De Villiers today and makes him one of the journalists’ favourites: he has a lovely dry wit which helps leaven press conferences.”
A picture also emerges – perhaps relevant considering past revelations of awkward cliques in the Springbok fold – of De Villiers’s respect among black players either in the WP or Bok ranks.
Young Province hooker Scarra Ntubeni is quoted as saying: “On the field, he never panics. He is always calm and he keeps the guys calm. Off the field, there’s never the thing of ‘you’re 20 and I’m a senior’.
“From the moment I started training with the team, he made me feel part of it. And he’s good at the little things: he always makes sure we thank the bus driver. If we’re at a restaurant and getting too boisterous, he will make us keep it down … and then thank the waiter and the manager.
“Some of the senior guys arrive late for gym sessions, but he is always the first to arrive and last to leave.”
McGregor also writes of the support given Bok newcomer Siya Kolisi by De Villiers this year.
“The most effective – and dispassionate – mentoring Kolisi gets is from (him). In the week leading up to Kolisi’s Springbok debut against Scotland in Mbombela, De Villiers shared a room with Kolisi.
“Any Bok with more than 50 caps is entitled to his own room, a cherished privilege which De Villiers voluntarily gave up in order to give Kolisi as much support as possible in the fraught build-up to the biggest game of his life.
“It paid off: Kolisi played brilliantly and was named man of the match. This not only demonstrates the mettle of the Bok captain but also how far the team has come in the decade since the room-sharing scandal of 2003.”
Asked by the author what makes a great Springbok, De Villiers himself says: “The guy who puts the Springbok first. Talent alone won’t make you a great Bok.
“You get a lot of guys for whom it’s not special. But not a lot of people get that opportunity, and you have to do everything in your ability to help the team; whether you are sitting in the stands, on the bench or starting, your commitment must be the same.
“That is what marks a great Bok from an average one.”
*Springbok Factory, by Liz McGregor (Jonathan Ball Publishers) is available at major bookstores (R195).