When South Africa captain Jean de Villiers lines up against Ireland today, he will have almost 100 caps and 12 years of experience on his direct opponents.
It’s some feat, given the circumstances in which his international career started.
He ruptured knee ligaments seven minutes into his debut against France in 2002 and it was almost two years before his second cap against the Pacific Islands after he had damaged a shoulder during preparations for the 2003 World Cup.
In his next game back, against New Zealand in Christchurch, he crossed for a try inside 30 seconds before Doug Howlett snatched the win away in the last minute. It was quite the early collage.
Robbie Henshaw was nine years old when De Villiers debuted, 29-year-old Jared Payne still to start his professional career in New Zealand. De Villiers’ centre partner is Jan Serfontein who, though only 21, is far from a rookie, with 16 caps already notched since making his debut last year.
It’s an unnerving set of statistics for an Irish pair with three caps between them and playing out of position.
On the Springboks’ last two winning trips to Dublin, in 2010 and 2012, the former Munster centre faced Gordon D’Arcy (twice) and Brian O’Driscoll and he admits he is unsure what to expect from Ireland’s new centre partnership.
All that experience, though, means he knows talking up a challenge is wiser than betraying hints of complacency.
“It’s sort of the unknown, in a way,” he said. “I played against the other two so many times before. At one stage they were, in my opinion, the best in the world. They (Henshaw and Payne) will bring something different to the mix, and we haven’t seen much of them. For us, it’s about executing our plays.
“We’ve been interlinking and changing up, playing to our strengths. The amount of work that Jan goes through is amazing. He doesn’t make many mistakes and has matured a great deal.
“We’re under no illusions. We won’t underestimate them. They’re the Six Nations champions, they should have beaten the All Blacks last year, even the All Blacks have said so. Why would we underestimate them? We have to be at our best.”
The 33-year-old is much more familiar with opposing captain Paul O’Connell, who he spent the 2009/2010 season with at Munster, and he feels the responsibility of captaining his own side has had a positive effect on his career.
“I know him really well having played with him. I can call him a friend, and a fantastic player and an unbelievable man off the field.
“He’s shown what he can do for Ireland and the Lions.
“The captaincy has rejuvenated me. It’s always nice to do something you love, with guys you like being around. The feeling in the squad is good. A great camaraderie.”
He also praised Joe Schmidt, who he said has improved this Irish side.
“You can see the difference he’s made, the detail in the way they play. He was very successful with Leinster and at Clermont under Vern Cotter. They’re a much better team under him, and they’re trying to get better and better. Obviously the players have enjoyed it.”
The Springboks will take to the Aviva Stadium pitch under the shadow of the recent passing of a couple of former players, but De Villiers insisted his side will be fully focused on making a positive start to their tour.
“We don’t want to make too much about it, but there will be emotions there. None of the guys will have played with Abie Malan, although old Victor (Matfield) would have come close,” he chuckled.
“I’m the only one who played with Tinus Linee. He was my first centre partner at Western Province. It really hits home when you’ve a history with a guy.
” The other guys will be showing the support to the athletes that have passed, and showing that we are united as a country.
“This is our most important game of the year. We’re under no illusions. We need to start our tour on a high.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved