Jean de Villiers has made a quicker-than-expected recovery from a serious left knee injury to be picked on the bench for the Springboks’ opening game of the season, giving the two-time champions a big boost two months out from the Rugby World Cup.
The South African captain was a doubt to even make the World Cup in September after undergoing reconstructive surgery following his injury against Wales late last year, when he dislocated his knee cap and badly damaged ligaments.
The 106-test centre and respected leader hasn’t played since, but has been named on the bench by coach Heyneke Meyer for Saturday’s game against a World XV in Cape Town, the first of five matches for the No.2-ranked Springboks ahead of the World Cup.
“I thought it was, I won’t say the end, but a big, big step back for our World Cup campaign,” Meyer said of De Villiers’ injury. “But now he’s here. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster.”
Meyer also gave young Jesse Kriel his first cap, moving the Bulls’ fullback to outside centre for the World XV. Warren Whiteley would start at No.8 after an injury to regular Duane Vermeulen, who Meyer said would be racing the clock to be fit for the World Cup.
Powerful flanker Willem Alberts was also a doubt for the World Cup with back, knee and ankle problems, Meyer said.
With De Villiers playing off the bench, veteran lock Victor Matfield will captain the Springboks on Saturday, one of three players alongside De Villiers and winger Bryan Habana in the 23-man matchday squad to have played more than 100 Tests.
Although the World XV game doesn’t have Test status, it’ll be an important indicator of where the Springboks are at for the World Cup, and if they can live up to their reputation as the most likely to challenge defending world champions and No.1-ranked New Zealand in England and Wales.
Before the World Cup, South Africa play Australia, New Zealand and Argentina in a curtailed southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.
“Although the Championship is important to us, the World Cup is the be all and end all,” Meyer said.
Kriel, Whiteley, inside centre Damian de Allende and uncapped prop Vincent Koch, who is in the reserves, add new flavour to the Boks. But there are also tested campaigners and 2007 World Cup winners still around: JP Pietersen on the right wing, Habana on the left, Matfield in the second row, with flanker Schalk Burger and De Villiers on the bench.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Handre Pollard, Ruan Pienaar; Warren Whiteley, Marcell Coetzee, Francois Louw, Victor Matfield (capt), Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Res: Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane, Vincent Koch, Oupa Mohoje, Schalk Burger, Cobus Reinach, Pat Lambie, Jean de Villiers.