Being captain of the Springboks is a high-profile job and one that brings with it a heavy dose of pressure, but Jean de Villiers almost always carries a ready smile on his face.
Maybe it’s because he still plays sport for fun, just as he did as a laaitie in Paarl when he would spend all day during the weekends and holidays out on the fields with a rugby ball and a tennis racquet.
But that’s not to say De Villiers does not take his rugby seriously. He knows full well how the Springboks carry the hopes of the nation and also how important the success of the Stormers is to their passionate supporters.
And while the 33-year-old is a progressive thinker, he still stands by the importance of traditions, of which there are many in rugby, such as the back seats on the Springbok bus being reserved for senior players.
“My upbringing, the impact of my parents and family, and also my schooling have all helped to shape me into the person that I am today,” De Villiers says. “My parents, Louise and Andre, have helped incredibly with my upbringing off the field, but also on the field.
“My dad played provincial rugby [lock for Western Province] and my mother was in the provincial netball team, so I basically grew up in a house where rugby was part of our day-to-day routine and, also, grew up on a netball field and next to a swimming pool as my mom used to play and coach those sports.
“And then Paarl Gimnasium taught me something that I am still using today, which is respect, definitely. The importance that an individual has within a team situation – if you have that respect for yourself and your fellow players then it creates a good culture,” De Villiers says.
De Villiers’ exalted station in life means he also has to put up with the vicissitudes of sporting fortune, in particular the harsh treatment meted out to the Springboks by referees around the world, but he exemplifies Rudyard Kipling’s advice to treat those twin imposters of triumph and disaster just the same.
He always appears unflappable on the field, but De Villiers says that is not the real him.
“Definitely not!,” he laughs. “I try and have a clear mind on the field because I feel when you do have a clear mind you can make good decisions. There’s no use trying to argue with a referee once a decision has been made and that’s something that comes with experience and I’ve learnt over a couple of years of playing at the highest level.”
Dealing with defeat and being able to pick his team up again are two other skills De Villiers has had to develop.
“I always see defeat as a good reality check to sort of reassess your situation and to try and improve after that.
“If the culture of the team is good and everyone knows what they’re striving towards, then usually it’s not difficult to get over the disappointment of defeat,” he says.
And leadership is also something which De Villiers sees as a function of focusing on the team good.
“Leadership varies from team to team and person to person. For me, being involved in the teams that I am involved with is getting a feel for what the team’s striving towards and what the individuals are striving for and then putting all of that together and making sure that you, as captain, drive that journey forward and make it happen.”
Since De Villiers took over the captaincy after John Smit’s retirement, he has led the Springboks to 17 wins in 24 Tests and returned them to the number two world ranking.
It means there is plenty of optimism in the build-up to next year’s World Cup.
“Yes, we do have high hopes for the Rugby World Cup, but that’s still a long way off in September 2015. For us now it’s about building on that success we’ve enjoyed and getting to number one in the world,” De Villiers says.
The Springboks hammered Australia twice last year and completed an unbeaten European tour in November, but the one team they haven’t managed to beat since De Villiers and new coach Heyneke Meyer took the reins has been New Zealand.
“I think we’re very close to beating them, but the reality is that we’ve not beaten them in the last two years. In order to do so, we need to rectify one or two small little things, and I have no doubt that this year we will get there,” De Villiers says.
The former Stellenbosch University student describes himself as a “family man” and there is no doubt wife Marlie and daughters Layli (2) and Lana (9 months) are the centre of his universe.
“I think we’re very blessed to be able to tour as much as we do and it’s a great part of being a professional rugby player as you get to see the world, but it’s quite demanding with two young daughters and it does put a lot of strain on my wife Marlie, but luckily I picked a fantastic woman to share my life with,” he says, before adding that they keep him centred in his beliefs.
“Being a Christian I try and live by those sort of standards from a day-to-day basis. Also, I try to live up to the expectations of my two daughters and a lovely wife, so I would never want to disappoint those women in my life.”
Which seems highly unlikely given De Villiers’ astute world view and his insight into the society around him.
“Having a wife and two daughters of my own, it really hits home when you hear about Crimes against women – it’s really sickening. I think a real man respects women and children and doesn’t try and abuse and pick fights with easy targets.
“As rugby players we have a responsibility as role-models to lead by example both on and off the field – even though we’re involved in a physical contact sport like rugby, we go home and show love and respect to our loved ones and those close to us. I think abusing a woman or child – or any form of bullying – is the act of a coward,” the Springbok captain firmly states.
Despite his workload in one of the busiest channels on the rugby field, South Africa’s most capped centre (96 Tests) is confident he can keep going until the World Cup.
“I’m really feeling good, the body is holding up considering the amount of game time I’ve had, and I feel I’m playing decent rugby.
“If I’m still the best inside centre in the country then there’s no reason why I can’t make the World Cup and, in an ideal world, I’d love that.
“But it’s up to the coach and he has to plan the group he wants to take and have all the scenarios in place. If I’m still the number one centre then I could captain the side at the World Cup, but I’m very aware of the situation,” De Villiers told French rugby publication Midi Olympique late last year.
Coach Meyer has been unstinting in his praise of his captain and has reportedly already decided De Villiers will continue in that role this year.
“Jean has been awesome, he’s a brilliant captain. He’s started every game in the last two years and he’s also been a great ambassador for the country. He has also been our main ball-carrier and he gains good ground for us,” Meyer said.
De Villiers is indeed a tremendous ambassador and role-model and well-aware of his off-field responsibilities.
“I don’t have a specific charity that I support individually but I love helping out with the Springbok charity, Boks for Books, and also the Players’ Fund is very close to my heart.
“At the DHL Stormers we’re heavily involved with Reach for a Dream and, of course, at national level too. As rugby players, we all try to contribute to the development of rugby through coaching clinics.
“I have no doubts about rugby unifying people in South Africa. We could just see it by the numbers of people that rock up every weekend to watch the Springboks play. When we’re winning, you can see it by the crowd sizes – it’s all different ethnic groups and religions; all people of South Africa who take pride in the performances of the national sides and that puts a lot of responsibility on us as players.
“The 1995 Rugby World Cup was a great example of what rugby did for our nation and we’re all aware of our responsibilities moving forward in our country,” De Villiers says.
Who do you most admire in the world?
After listening to Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial – I was fortunate enough to be there – I must say I was impressed with him and the aura that surrounds him and he’s quite an impressive person.
How would you describe yourself?
Fun-loving, easy-going, motivated and a family man.
When last did you cry?
When I have to leave home on tour.
What is your favourite virtue?
Your main fault?
Your favourite qualities in others?
Your idea of happiness?
My family – being with them or just thinking about them when I am away from home.
When did you last laugh till you cried?
Watching Pat Cilliers do a cricket pitch report.
Your idea of misery?
Not having a close support structure – be it family or friends – when times are tough.
Your favourite author?
John Dobson (he wrote The Year of the Gherkin).