Jon Cardinelli talks to the former South Africa captain about the 2009 tour and his travel tips for visiting fans
Jean de Villiers on facing the British & Irish Lions
The second Test between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions in 2009 will be remembered as one of the most dramatic clashes of all time. The Lions had the upper hand for much of the contest until the Springboks fought back to level the scores in the final quarter.
When replacement Ronan O’Gara mistimed a challenge for a high ball and clattered into Bok scrum-half Fourie du Preez, the writing was on the wall for the tourists. Fly-half Morne Steyn stepped up to slot a long-range penalty that sealed a series victory for the hosts – not to mention bragging rights for the next 12 years.
Jean de Villiers left the field with an injury in the second half and was forced to watch the heart-stopping climax from the South African bench. Several months later, as a new signing at Munster, he used that series-deciding incident to break the ice with O’Gara.
“Munster used to split their training sessions during the week between the grounds in Cork and Limerick,” the former Bok centre remembers. “You really had to maximise your time and engage with players and coaches when you had the chance.
“I decided to stay late and do a bit of extra training with the kickers. ROG eventually put up a high ball and I seized the moment. I raced in and as I collected it, I looked at him and said, ‘Please don’t take me out in the air, ROG’. He immediately cracked a smile and said, ‘You’re a funny guy. You and I are going to get on just fine’.
“That’s one of the great things about rugby; you can battle these players on the field and still be mates off it. I was fortunate in that I got to play with some of those great players at Munster a few months after the Lions series. Eleven years later, and I still count them among my good mates.”
Most of the players who starred in South Africa’s successful 2007 World Cup campaign were prominent in the series against the Lions two years later. On the back of that success, the Boks won the 2009 Tri-Nations and climbed to the top of the World Rugby rankings.
Roll back the calendar 12 months, however, and South African rugby was at a crossroads. The Boks blew hot and cold in the 2008 Tri-Nations, and were under pressure to bounce back when they travelled north to face Wales, Scotland and England.
“In that era, very few players who represented overseas clubs were selected for the national side,” says De Villiers, who captained the Boks between 2012 and 2015 and amassed 109 Test caps. “So after the 2007 World Cup, most of us made the decision to stay in South Africa with a view to qualifying for that series against the Lions. Winning that series was our next big goal, and we started to prepare for the challenge in the 2008 season.”
Of the 42-6 win over England in the preceding year, De Villiers says: “I have a lot of good memories of that win at Twickenham. Everything just seemed to click. It was massively encouraging to know that we could go north and beat one of the top sides by such a convincing margin.
“Coming home with three wins gave us an edge ahead of the subsequent Lions series. We knew that a lot of those players from Wales, Scotland and England would be part of the squad travelling to South Africa in 2009.”
Six months later, De Villiers and his team-mates were surprised by the reception they received ahead of the first Test at Kings Park.
“Playing a home game in South Africa is an unbelievable experience,” he says. “You do take a lot of energy from what is a unique home crowd. That said, I got a shock when I ran out of the tunnel and saw a sea of red in the stands.
“There we were, expecting home-ground advantage in one of the biggest games of our lives. The travelling support was so significant, however, that it effectively cancelled out the home support. But we took that as part of the challenge. It motivated us in that we thought, ‘Right, we’re going to show these Lions fans how a Bok team performs at home’.”
South Africa went on to win that Test in Durban on the back of a dominant forward performance. Experience, says De Villiers, pulled the hosts through a more challenging second fixture in Pretoria.
“Jaque Fourie replaced me in the second half after I left the field with a shoulder injury. He ended up scoring an amazing try in the corner that brought us back into the game.
“It’s funny how things work out. I don’t know whether I would have been quick enough to score that try.
“We were tested a great deal over those first two games, but we had a core of veterans who had played at the 2007 World Cup and who understood what it took to perform under intense pressure. That was the difference on the day in Pretoria.”
Jean de Villiers’s South Africa travel tips for Lions fans
The Lions will play two fixtures at the Cape Town Stadium next year. After tackling the Stormers in the tour opener on 3 July, Warren Gatland’s charges will return to the ‘Mother City’ on 31 July for the second Test against the Springboks.
De Villiers says that visiting fans – and perhaps a few former Lions players – won’t want for distractions ahead of those matches.
“The Western Cape has something for everyone, from the mountains and beaches of Cape Town to the wine farms in the Boland. It’s a short drive from the Mother City to Gansbaai – where braver tourists can experience a cage-dive with a great white shark – and only a two-hour journey to game farms that have the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo).
“I’m an avid golfer and nothing beats a day out on one of the region’s golf courses. Often you’ll play a round with the mountain on one side and the ocean on the other. Pearl Valley at Val de Vie Estate is a favourite of mine, as it’s close to where I stay out in the winelands. The Metropolitan Golf Club is another good option and is right in the shadow of the Cape Town Stadium.
“I expect that the series in 2021 may prompt the return of some former Lions tourists. I’d love to catch up with old Munster team-mates like Paul O’Connell (who led the Lions in 2009) and serve as a guide to them in this beautiful country. We’ll be competitive on the golf course – that’s always a given – but there will be time for a pint or two in the aftermath.”
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