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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 25 April, 2019
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Guinness Series: Jean de Villiers eager to pile on the misery for old Munster friends

The Springbok captain is set to take on Keith Earls in the centre of the park on Saturday.

Jean de Villiers evades Adam Ashley Cooper in the World Cup quarter-final.
Jean de Villiers evades Adam Ashley Cooper in the World Cup quarter-final.
Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

IT TOOK NINE games and four months for Jean de Villiers to play his way into Munster folklore.

54-times capped for South Africa, 28 years young and renowned as a dynamic, try-scoring centre, de Villiers was heralded as a vital signing in the quest to capture a third Heineken Cup in five seasons.

By the time December 2009 came into view, the Western Cape native was on the bench while Lifemi Mafi and Keith Earls ran the midfield.

De Villiers came on with 20 minutes to go and took a Ronan O’Gara pass at full-pelt, broke two covering tackles and sprinted clear for a crucial try.

A late Doug Howlett score ensured a bonus point but de Villiers was mobbed by teammates as the final whistle shrilled.

“I probably did let the team down a bit in the first couple of games,” the Springbok captain told TheScore.ie.

It was probably a combination of expectations and me not living up to it, maybe pressure that I put on myself a bit as well. Once I felt comfortable in the environment and started enjoying it, I think it shone through in how I was playing.

“It was such a great experience for me as a person and as a rugby player.”

Friends with benefits

Having enjoyed his time in Limerick ‘immensely’, when he rented the house vacated by Argentine prop Federico Pucciarello, de Villiers has already caught up with many of his former teammates.

He did the same in November 2010, when South Africa avenged their 15-10 defeat at Croke Park with a tight win at the freshly-minted Aviva, but absence has made his Munster memories grow fonder.

De Villiers and Ronan O’Gara celebrate after the Perpignan victory. (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)

He believes he will face-off against ‘Paulie’ O’Connell in the guise of Ireland captain on Saturday and is pleased to see the international emergence of Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony.

Most of his praise, however, is reserved for a player he worked closely with during his season at Munster under Tony McGahan.

“I always believe that the centre positions should be a partnership,” he said. “Occasionally you get two individuals that don’t click.

“D’Arcy and O’Driscoll are fantastic players in their own right but, as a combination, they suit each other so well, for their province and their country.” De Villiers added:

If Keith Earls takes his place in the centre, he will do fantastically well. We played together in the centre on a few occasions. He has all the skills to be a great player in that position and has matured so well in the last few years.”

He is also looking forward to taking on fellow countryman Richardt Strauss and is relishing the clash of the newly qualified Irish hooker with his cousin, Adriaan Strauss.

Leading by example

Ireland have bemoaned the loss of leadership figures such as Rob Kearney, Rory Best and, naturally, Brian O’Driscoll.

The ‘Boks have lost key figures to retirement in recent years, including John Smit and Victor Matfield, so the feeling is mutual.

De Villiers has captained Stormers in the Super Rugby but he admits that he struggled to come to terms with the size of the task throughout an ultimately successful home series against England in June. He told TheScore.ie:

I’ve settled into the captaincy much better than before that series. I got the call about it about five or six days before our first game. I’ve worked under John for so long and have learned from on-pitch leaders like Victor and Bakkies [Botha].

“I think the players are really responding well to me now.”

De Villiers is talking up his side’s prospects but alluded to South Africa using the tour as a proving ground for players such as Eben Etzebeth, Arno Botha, Pat Lambie and Raymond Rhule.

“Going into a tournament like the World Cup eventually,” he said, “that is the goal but it is the nature of rugby that you will always have injuries.

If you can have a squad, or sort of two teams that’s good enough, to compete at Test-match level then you’ll be really well off.

“The main aim for us is to progress as a team but if we can blood some new guys along the way, it’s all for the better.”

O’Connell set to assume Irish captaincy as he clears another fitness hurdle

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Patrick McCarry

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