Jean de Villiers opens up to Jamie Roberts on the Lions tour

‘The Boks spell danger… this means so much to our troubled nation’: Former South Africa captain Jean de Villiers opens up to JAMIE ROBERTS on how the Lions tour will boost morale, his experience in 2009 and his prediction ahead of this year’s Tests

  • Jean de Villiers was Jamie Roberts’ opposite number during the 2009 Lions tour
  • Both men have played against each other many times and have now caught up 
  • While chewing the fat, de Villiers has said rugby has handed people a big boost 
  • Former South Africa captain de Villiers also opened up on his 2009 experience 
  • He tipped the Springboks to take a 2-1 series victory and can’t see a clean sweep 

Jean de Villiers is a former South African captain, World Cup winner and was Jamie Roberts’ opposite number during the Lions series of 2009 – the perfect man to chat to before the Tests begin in 2021.

The pair played many times against each other, and Roberts joined de Villiers’ Cape Town club the Stormers for a brief stint last year.

So ahead of this Lions series it was time for the duo to chew the fat. Sportsmail‘s Will Kelleher listened in.

Jamie Roberts (left) has spoken to Jean de Villiers (right) before the Lions series in South Africa

JDV: Hiya Jamie! It seems like for a change it’s warmer where you are than I am!

JR: I’ve just been for a walk in Cardiff, and I’m dripping! How are you mate? Are you in your office, or your massive living room?

JDV: It’s my living room, but I’ve got the virtual Zoom background on! I’m in Paarl, about an hour from Cape Town.

JR: My biggest disappointment about not going to South Africa this summer is not being able to join you for a glass of wine!

Roberts joined de Villiers’ club the Stormers for a stint and was his opposite number in 2009

JDV: It’s in short supply at the moment because all alcohol sales are banned – even the wine farms can’t trade. We’re in lockdown week five, but it’s not that hectic apart from the 9pm curfews. Luckily restaurants are back open.

JR: Berserk. Are you surprised the tour is going ahead amid all this?

JDV: I feel like applauding everyone each time a game goes ahead. It’s so difficult to balance the safety of human beings and what the Lions tour brings. Surprised in way, but glad, perhaps selfishly, that it’s happening. I just hope nothing bad happens to anyone on the tour because of Covid.

JR: Do you think this tour is a huge boost for the whole community, not just the rugby?

JDV: Yeah. So many people I’ve spoken to who’ve contracted the virus say it helps having the rugby on. It takes you away from Covid dominating every conversation. Live sport, and the magnitude of the Lions tour gives us a bit of a break I suppose, to feel normal. Whatever that is. 

The whole political situation too gives you a high level of anxiety, so the rugby can take us away from all that. Hopefully we can forget for a while about the problems in our country.

De Villiers says that it is difficult to balance public safety and what the Lions’ tour will provide

JR: Let’s go back to the 2009 tour – then you were in Damian de Allende’s shoes now, the starting No 12. You’ve seen the Lions play good games, average games. Take us back to your emotions before the first Test.

JDV: I remember watching the 1997 tour as a school-boy, watching that Matt Dawson dummy at Newlands, scoring the try in the first Test, and then Jerry Guscott kicking the winning drop-goal in the first Test. It stayed with me. 

I knew what the Lions were about. As the Lions had not toured South Africa since 1980 everything built up to 1997, and then we lost, so it was huge. Fast-forward 12 years, I still carried the scars of 1997. We wanted the opportunity to rectify that in 2009.

JR: Did you feel the weight of history then?

Former South Africa captain de Villiers (left) also admits that the team felt the weight of history

JDV: 100 per cent. That, added to being world champions. It was an incentive too, though, as it pushed us wanting to achieve something new. What makes playing against the Lions difficult – and maybe this year more so – is that you never know who’s going to be selected. 

You can have theories, but you don’t know. In 2009 we knew it was going to be you and Brian O’Driscoll which helped a little bit. I knew your qualities, and as a combination you fitted perfectly.

JR: With me was it, ‘go low, round the ankles!’?

JDV: Close my eyes and go low, yeah!

Roberts says he struck up a ‘good partnership’ with Brian O’Driscoll during the 2009 Lions tour

JR: The Tuesday before the first Test in 2009 we played the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth and they split the group. After the Western Province game the Saturday before they flew 15 lads to Durban, including me, for the first Test, with the rest left in Cape Town. So I had an inkling I’d be in the Test side. 

You’re right Brian and I struck up a good partnership in just two games together – sometimes it just clicks. He made my job so much easier. There weren’t many one-on-one collisions from what I remember, it was more a game of chess. 

You had Fourie du Preez at No 9, and Ruan Pienaar at 10, so we knew kicking would be important. This series is going to be the same – we’ve seen it with what Faf de Klerk and Morne Steyn brought last Wednesday.

I thought the first Test would be uber-physical in midfield in 2009, but it didn’t really transpire that way. It felt a bit more open – all the hard work was done in the set-piece! I remember us losing scrums and our maul going in reverse and thinking ‘jeez what’s going on?!’

JDV: It felt we got a jump-start on you. The intensity of the forwards, the physicality, it felt we were better prepared and the Lions pack didn’t know what was going to happen. We might have seen that last Wednesday with the A team playing the Lions. I think the Springboks missed a trick – the Lions now know what they’re facing.

JR: I agree. The first Test in Durban we knew what was coming – set piece, big men carrying round the corner – except we hadn’t faced anything like that in the warm-ups. We prepared for it in the week with defence coach Shaun Edwards, flying off the line. But minutes into the first Test it happened. 

O’Driscoll (left) is credited with making Roberts’ job ‘so much easier’ as they clicked together

Round the corner, round the corner, round the corner and John Smit scores under the sticks. You’re bang on – the Lions now know what’s coming. That game will have benefited them more than the Boks. Saying that, South Africa ‘A’ were immense.

JDV: Was the first Test easier than raising a child?

JR: Oh mate, I’ve got my five-month old boy Tomos here with me now, look at me!

JDV: I’m so glad I’m through that stage!

JR: Going back to the rugby, Jean, was the Lions tour like a World Cup to you having ruptured your bicep and missed most of that tournament you won in 2007?

JDV: Yeah. It was the pinnacle for me. I have the 2007 winners’ medal at home, but it doesn’t really feel I deserve it having played once. 2009 was the biggest year of my career. In the first Test we started well, had it in the bag then the Lions came back and could have easily won. 

De Villiers says 2009 was the biggest year of his career with the Lions and the Boks battling

Then the roles reversed. Schalk Burger was yellow-carded for his eye-gouge, the Lions scored, we came back… the ebb and flow of those two games and the series as a whole was mind-blowing. It so easily could have been 2-0 to the Lions. The whole series was amazing, and captivating.

JR: I’d echo that. It was the best tour I’ve ever been on, regardless of the result. The group of lads we had, the fans, the competitive nature of the fixtures, the Test series – it was the best series ever, although I was crying after the second Test loss!

JDV: I understand that Jamie. We played the All Blacks in 2013 at Ellis Park and lost, but it was one of the best Test matches I’ve ever been involved in. Sometimes it’s good to sit where we’re sitting, reflecting on a special spectacle. I’m glad you feel the same about 2009.

JR: Will it be that tight this time?

JDV: Mate, it’s so difficult to base your decision on facts as there are so few. The Boks have hardly played, and the Lions have an extremely strong squad but I don’t know what the starting XV will be. It’s so competitive in so many positions, and no one saying ‘I’m so much better than the rest’.

The Lions have an ‘extremely strong squad’, says de Villiers, who is stumped over his selection

JR: Is that a strength or a weakness?

JDV: A weakness to be honest. It makes selecting the team extremely difficult.

JR: I find that fascinating. The lads would not have known until late they were going to start the Tests, whereas we had a fair idea a several days out in 2009.

JDV: Tadhg Furlong will start at tight-head, Wyn Jones at loosehead, but then I give up! Look at the midfield…

JR: What’s your 10-12-13 axis? I’ve gone for Dan Biggar, Robbie Henshaw, Chris Harris, but can’t really work it out! 

Owen Farrell has not impressed De Villiers enough at 12 to play – and he wants combinations

JDV: Go with combinations – I would pick Conor Murray and Biggar, then Bundee Aki and Henshaw. Owen Farrell hasn’t impressed me enough at 12 to throw him in there. And I would go for a guy like you in the midfield who can give momentum.

JR: Duhan van der Merwe has to play – he’s the best ball-carrier behind the pack.

JDV: The forwards might get into him as a South African! They’ll be some banter, but he looks like a guy to stand up to the challenge. He’s not a small lad!

JR: What about Alun Wyn Jones – does he start?

JDV: Another good question! Who’s captain? Does Conor give it away? The Lions need clarity – sometimes it helps when there is a gap between your best and your second best.

Alun Wyn Jones could play in the first Test with the Lions posed with a captaincy headache

JR: Will the Boks enjoy the pressure – knowing what it means to the country in troubled times?

JDV: It almost makes the team more dangerous. South Africans have this ability that when our backs are against the walls and no one gives us a chance we stand up and perform. It’s not just about the rugby, but everything going on in the country, people uniting behind the team as the one ray of light in a dark environment. 

The guys will understand that responsibility, which is unfair sometimes, but they showed at the World Cup they can thrive under it. I would use it if I were still captain as motivation.

JR: Which way is it going then?

JDV: I will go with a 2-1 South African victory again. I can’t see it being a clean sweep either side, but with all three Tests in Cape Town it might be the other way around.

De Villiers has tipped South Africa to claim a 2-1 series victory and cannot see a clean sweep

JR: Not many people are talking about it, playing at sea-level is a leveller for the Lions. It’s huge.

JDV: I agree. The Boks can’t play like they did last Wednesday for three weeks and expect to win. With the South African way of playing it will be difficult to outplay the Lions three weeks in a row in Cape Town.

JR: 3-0 Lions, then!

JDV: If we can see three Test matches, I don’t care where it’s played, whether people are there, or about the results, it’ll just be amazing to see a Lions series in South Africa.

JR: Have we got to get rid of the Covid excuses, which will come from either side if they lose?

Roberts has reflected on how the Lions (above) changed both his career and his life after 2009

JDV: Those are coming, no doubt! But five years down the line, who cares? I want the series to be fulfilled as I love the Lions – I know how special it is play against them. They’re relevant in world rugby. It’s a massive part of the sport. 

I liken it to the Haka – it’s special and to not have it would leave a huge gap in rugby. I’ve never spoken to a South African who says the Lions shouldn’t exist – it’s more up north where you have those challenges.

JR: I’m a traditionalist and love the Lions too. It didn’t just change my career, but my life after 2009. It’s career-defining, life-changing, and connects you to 133 years of history. If anything it needs more resources and support. Mate, Jean thanks so much for you time, I’ve loved reminiscing.

JDV: Pleasure. Have a lekker week, Jamie!

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