Monday 19 March 2018

De Villiers finally in perfect harmony

Jean de Villiers insists that his stay at Munster has been enjoyable despite a difficult start
Jean de Villiers insists that his stay at Munster has been enjoyable despite a difficult start
David Kelly

David Kelly

It is no surprise that before Christmas many felt that Munster's hefty investment in Jean de Villiers was backfiring -- even the player himself confides now that he struggled to immerse himself into the close-knit team.

Off the pitch, despite an early initiation amongst the exalted royalty of Munster rugby -- Keith Wood, Peter Clohessy and Anthony Foley introduced him to the joys of Arthur in Limerick -- the Springbok was struggling to convert the international currency of 50-plus caps and a World Cup medal on the local exchanges.

His debut on the Munster squad's regular cabaret circuit rendered him a cross between Milli Vanilli and a delusional 'X Factor' prospect -- his timing on the microphone was even more out of tune than his efforts on the field.


He was promptly booed off by the harshest crowd he would ever face -- his own team-mates.

When he had first pitched up at the province last September, De Villiers was expecting to feature from the bench against the Dragons, but illness to Keith Earls saw him unexpectedly introduced to the fray from the start.

At one stage, Ronan O'Gara discreetly passed on a certain call to him. De Villiers shook his head incomprehensibly. O'Gara relayed the instructions again. And again. "Sorry," said De Villiers to the out-half. "Can you speak a little slower? I can't understand a word you're saying."

Much more was lost in translation as De Villiers struggled to integrate into the new society, supporters' frustrations exacerbated at Munster's poor form and the centre's seemingly effortless sashay into the South African squad for the November international defeat to Ireland, where his display superseded any in a club jersey to that point. Imperceptibly though, he has turned the corner, from his debut try against Treviso in November, through to the more settled midfield partnership with Earls which has blossomed along with Munster's blistering recent form.

Now fully immersed in the Munster way, Paul O'Connell this week detailed to him a brief history lesson, in which the newcomer swiftly absorbed all those frenetic last-day Heineken Cup pool deciders against English invaders, from Gloucester to Sale, Wasps to Leicester.

And now Northampton. "Leading up to this game the lads have all been saying that it is the best time to be a Munster player," he enthuses.

"The last game before the play-offs, do-or-die, everything to play for, the whole of Munster supporting you and a great game to be a part of. Hopefully I can do my part as a player.

"I definitely know what's at stake. Even before I came over I knew the history of Munster rugby and the success they've had in the Heineken Cup. The last 12 years, not failing to make the quarter-finals, are integral to Munster's history in this competition."

De Villiers arrived with a huge reputation. But the reputation of his new home preceded him. When he was dropped by coach Tony McGahan for the restorative December win against Perpignan, the ripples were felt around the world.

Munster folk merely shrugged. He would be treated as an equal.

"From a personal point of view, I started off slowly and I was obviously being dropped halfway through. And that was a turning point for me as well in the season.

"No one likes to get dropped. Thoughts go through your head and you think, 'have you made the right choice?'. You're angry at the coach, you're angry at your team-mates, you're angry at yourself.

"You blame everybody else. But at the end of the day if you really sit down and think about it, it all points back to you again. It's the way that you approach it then. What your attitude is towards that and the team.

"And I think you learn from those experiences. I'm just happy to be back in the team and hopefully I can stay there, because the quality of the players we have is just fantastic. One bad game and you might find yourself out of the 22 again.

"I think it wasn't so much doing stuff wrong; maybe not doing what was expected of me. Those are the things that I worked at. Maybe carrying the ball more, being a bit more selfish at times, having a go myself when I do have the ball.

"When I arrived things didn't come naturally to me. You were thinking about what to do rather than it happening naturally. And I would say now I'm at a stage where it happens instinctively and that's the way I like to play."

De Villiers has always trusted on instinct even when living on the edge -- he proposed to Marlie while parasailing -- albeit he kicks to touch the suggestion that he can dovetail a Munster career with the Springboks' 2011 World Cup defence. "That's obviously a thing that's coming up," he answers.

"But for me if I start focusing on that now I would not be focusing on the right thing. For me it's focusing on this game, putting in a good performance, getting the result we want and then in the two weeks off I'll be making a decision."

He is enjoying life though, which may influence his decision.

"My experience here has been fantastic and I've enjoyed every moment," he gushes. "It has been all I expected. I got a white Christmas, I get soup after training. Warm soup. It's been fantastic."

He can sing it. On second thoughts, perhaps not.

Irish Independent

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