Mark Keohane, in his post 1992 Springbok and international stand out players, reveals his Dream Team Bok No 12 and who would oppose him in a World XV.
You can’t but help like Jean de Villiers as a person and absolutely love him as a rugby player. De Villiers, a veteran of 109 Test matches, was as popular with the opposition as he was with his own teammates. He would captain the Springboks in the Heyneke Meyer era and when he called time on his Test career he had transformed from the joker in the team to a highly respected international captain.
De Villiers made his international debut in 2002 on the end of year tour. I was working as the Springboks Communications Manager and his first Test against France in Marseilles lasted six minutes. De Villiers fell awkwardly in a tackle and in a freak accident tore his knee ligaments.
The Boks took a 30-10 beating that night in Marseilles, which was the precursor to a disastrous month. The following weekend the Boks lost 21-6 to Scotland at Murrayfield, before ending the season in disgrace, when a 14-man Boks took a 53-3 beating against England at Twickenham.
De Villiers had been in wonderful form in 2002. He had done his thing for Chester Williams’s Sevens Springboks and was on fire for Western Province in the Currie Cup. He had such natural class and the only thing that was going to prevent him from playing many a Test match was injury. It has been well documented that De Villiers was cursed with injury, prior to the 2003 World Cup, at the 2007 World Cup, at the 2011 World Cup and at the 2015 World Cup. If World Cups weren’t his thing, then a celebrated decade of excellence was his thing. This guy could play rugby. Early on in his career, he told me that he didn’t believe in kicking a rugby ball and it came from when a very famous Springbok, John Gainsford, who was a family friend, visited. A six year-old De Villiers was in the garden with a rugby ball and his first instinct was to grubber kick the ball or punt it high into the heavens. Gainsford left the braai area to give the youngster his first rugby lesson. Gainsford told him the rugby ball was a thing of beauty when in one’s hands and it wasn’t something to be let go of, let alone kicked away. ‘Run with it or pass it to a teammate who is in a better position to run with it’ were Gainsford’s words to a young Jean de Villiers.
This would become De Villiers’s mantra for his career, whether he was playing wing, outside or inside centre. De Villiers was a disciple of letting the ball work through the hands and not via the boot.
De Villiers, in 2003, was invited to the final Rugby World Cup camp at the Pretoria High Performance Centre. He had been in outstanding form for Western Province, had suffered a knee injury and was once again fit to play. The then Bok coach Rudolf Straeuli wasn’t convinced with De Villiers and put the player, along with a few others, through gruelling fitness tests that were more army-like than anything to do with rugby. De Villiers, with his tender knees, was made to go up and down hills and do excercises with a player on his back. It defied logic and common sense and no professional athlete would be put through such stupidity in this age.
Naturally, his knees took strain and this was enough to convince Straeuli to send De Villiers home and not select him for the World Cup. De Villiers, prior to getting into a mini-van that was to take him to the airport from the HPC, jokingly told me to tell the coach that he may not be able to go up and down hills all day but he knows how to play rugby!
And the charismatic De Villiers would be true to this as he consistently showed his class in a decade of international contests against the best in the world, of which he was undoubtedly one of the best.
De Villiers, on his return from the HPC, played for Western Province and won three successive Man of the Match awards. It prompted a late call-up to the Springboks World Cup squad but he got injured in a warm-up match in South Africa.
De Villiers may not have fond memories of World Cups, but as a Springbok player the highs were plenty. He scored a try against the All Blacks in New Zealand within 27 seconds of the start, which at time was the quickest try ever scored against the men in black. His intercept try at Newlands, when playing on the wing against the All Blacks in 2005, was also monumental. The All Blacks had destroyed the British & Irish Lions three-nil in a Test series the previous month and De Villiers’s try would be the only Bok score in a stunning 22-16 win.
The respect there was for De Villiers internationally was showcased when All Blacks captain Richie McCaw dedicated a specially signed All Blacks jersey, bottle of champagne and purple prose to De Villiers in a wonderful public speech after De Villiers had made his 100th Test appearance in Wellington, New Zealand.
Jean de Villiers, ordinarily, would make most World XVs and I am sure he would be many a supporter’s first pick as the best Springbok No 12 since 1992.
In the last 20 years De Villiers, as a No 12, has consistently been outstanding. Most recently, at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Damian de Allende was world class and produced his best ever year in Test rugby. He certainly has come good and justified Rassie Erasmus’s belief that he could be one of the best midfielders playing the game.
Heinrich Fuls was someone who made an immediate impression on me. He was just 21 years-old when he played for the Springboks, as a replacement wing in the inaugural post isolation Test against the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 1992. Fuls was big and strong and his specialist position was wing. He would play seven Tests in 1993 before injury derailed his international career. He joined Rugby League’s Super League in 1996, returned to South Africa when Super League didn’t happen, and ultimately quietly left the rugby scene because of the continued effects of injury.
I thought, back in 1992, he was going to be around for a long time.
De Wet Barry was a very good inside centre, who I worked with and wrote about. He was bloody tough and was seen as the natural successor to Japie Mulder, when it came to the backline enforcer role. Barry also understood defensive patterns and was as bright as he was tough in the tackle. He was also one of those good okes that everyone enjoyed.
Frans Steyn, easily the most versatile and talented Springbok backline player of his generation, played wing, fullback, outside centre, inside centre and flyhalf for the Springboks. Steyn won a World Cup as a 20 year-old in 2007 and was imposing when replacing the injured De Villiers at inside centre.
The 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White said he knew the first time he saw Steyn play for Grey College as a schoolboy that he was going to select him in his 2007 World Cup squad. White had taken the 2004 Boks, based in Bloemfontein pre the Ireland two-Test series, to watch a match at Grey College. White told the senior Bok leadership to watch the schoolboy Steyn because he would be an international teammate by the time of the World Cup.
Steyn, who most thought would be the first Springbok to play closer to 150 than 100 Tests, raced to his first 50 Tests, but would then primarily play for Racing Metro and Montpellier in France. He had a season in Japan and returned to the Sharks for a season when White was the coach, but for the most he was a star in France and the club versus country battle limited his Springbok appearances. He was exceptional at the 2011 World Cup before injury ended his tournament in the last play of the final pool match against Samoa at the North Harbour Stadium in Albany. I was in the stands when his shoulder went and a big part of the Bok World Cup challenge went with Steyn’s shoulder.
He missed out on the 2015 World Cup as he and Meyer didn’t connect as player and coach, and it was only when Rassie Erasmus took over that Steyn was reintroduced to the Bok set-up. His role in the victorious 2019 campaign was more in a supporting role than the superstar status of 2007, but it was no less important and effective.
Steyn makes my Bok 23 because of his quality and versatility in playing four positions and because of his goalkicking and dropkicking ability, but he doesn’t start at No 12. Neither does De Villiers.
My selection at No 12 is Pieter Muller, who was a mountain, whether he played 12 or 13.
Muller wore the No 12 jersey as a youngster against the All Blacks in 1992, with the legend Danie Gerber on his outside in No 13. Muller scored a try in the historic one-off Test against the All Blacks and would be the mainstay in the Boks midfield in 1992, 1993 and 1994 before breaking his neck in early 1995, which ruled him out of the 1995 World Cup.
It was feared he would never play rugby union again and this may also have contributed to him signing for the Penrith Panthers for the proposed 1996 Super League, especially with rugby union’s war on professionalism creating an uncertain future for players in 1996.
Super League in Australia fell flat in 1996 and Muller returned to rugby union through a season at French club Toulouse in 1997 and finally came back to South Africa in 1998.
He was immediately picked for the Springboks and started against Ireland in the home series. He was a permanent fixture in the Bok midfield throughout the 1998 and 1999 season and played the last of his 33 Test matches in the winning bronze medal play-off against the All Blacks in Cardiff in 1999.
Muller was colossal defensively, but was by no means a one-trick defensive pony. He could distribute the ball, but his physicality was his biggest weapon and he invariably made inroads when taking the ball to the line.
WATCH: MULLER’S HUGE TACKLE ON ERIC ELWOOD
The most magnificent individual effort I saw from a Springbok midfielder was Muller’s performance against the All Blacks in Wellington in 1998. It was the last match at the old Athletic Park Stadium and I was there to experience Muller flying into and stopping anything that wore black. He made a record (for a back) 23 tackles as the Boks repelled the All Blacks for 80 minutes to keep them tryless and secure a famous 13-3 win.
WATCH: MULLER’S CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
If you asked me to select the best Bok midfield pairing since 1992 then I’d go with De Villiers and Fourie and give an honourable mention to Barry and Joubert, but for my Dream Team I am going on individual selections and my No 12 belongs to the brute that is and was Pieter Muller.
Similarly, if you asked me to select an overseas midfield pairing, then it would be New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith or Australia’s Tim Horan and Jason Little. New Zealand’s Walter Little and Frank Bunce were also good but not quite a Nonu and Smith.
Scott Gibbs and Jeremy Guscott were the best British Lions midfield I saw play and Mike Tindall and Will Greenwood deserve every accolade for the potency of their combination between 2000 and 2003 for England’s World Champions.
Tana Umaga, Fiji’s Sera Rubeni, England’s Owen Farrell (at No 12 and No 10), England’s Manu Tuilagi at 12 or 13 and Samoa’s Brian Lima have all been huge.
Lima, who played in a record five successive World Cups, played 14, 13, 12 and 11 throughout his career, but in his last years mostly lined up in the midfield. South Africans will recall his tackle on Derick Hougaard at the 2003 World Cup in Australia. Lima, nicknamed the Chiropractor for the way he rattled opposition bones, cut Hougaard in two. It says everything about Hougaard’s character that he actually got up. Lima nearly repeated the Hougaard treatment on Andre Pretorius at the 2007 World Cup. Fortunately for Pretorius, Lima misjudged his flying coathanger of a tackle and ended up concussing himself.
Ireland’s Gordon D’Arcy was the less charismatic of the D’Arcy/O’Driscoll midfield, but he was never lacking in quality. Equally Wales’s Jamie Roberts.
I always enjoyed the artistry of France’s Yannick Yauzian and Maxime Mermoz, although neither was as good defensively, and France’s Wesley Fofana would excel in a No 12 and No 13 jersey. Argentina’s Felipie Contemponi was as good at inside centre as he was as a flyhalf and the same could be said of Australia’s Matt Giteau.
France’s Philippe Sella, between 1992 and 1995, wasn’t the player of the late 1980s that was rated the best in the world and New Zealand’s Otago captain John Leslie was a star when he played for Scotland at the 1999 World Cup. He was part of the six-strong Kilted Kiwis who qualified for Scotland through ancestry.
There have been some ferocious international No 12s since 1992 and you wouldn’t get too many arguments in picking a Tim Horan and Brian O’Driscoll midfield combination. Many would rate that as potentially the best combination from different countries.
For me, in all my years of writing about rugby, no one inside centre made an impression quite like New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, whose best years were between 2010 and 2015. Williams at the 2015 World Cup was at the peak of his rugby union career. His ability to commit anything between one and five defenders and still release an effective ‘in the tackle’ offload set him apart from any other No 12 in the game. Any YouTube highlights package showcases Williams’s range of offloads and the quantity of them. He was also very strong defensively.
WATCH: SOME OF SBW’s GREATEST OFFLOADS
Williams tore his Achilles heel playing for the New Zealand Sevens at the Rio Olympics in 2016, returned to play Test rugby for the All Blacks in 2017, but was never quite the same player. He was outstanding in his final Test against Wales in the 2019 RWC third-place play-off but the Williams who dazzled was at his most potent in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. He took a year off to return to Rugby League in 2013, won a Premiership with the Roosters, led the Kiwis to the Rugby League final and was voted Rugby League’s Player of the Year.
In my dream team I have SBW on the inside, getting his hands through the tackle, committing a few more defenders and unleashing the bulldozer Scott Gibbs on his outside.
I also shudder to think of the hits Williams and Gibbs, in their prime, would make when playing in tandem.
Wow, just imagine Sonny Bill Williams and Scott Gibbs fronting Pieter Muller and Japie Mulder. The collisions, to quote Gibbs when I let him know he was my World Dream Team No 13, would be ‘Richter Scale’.
WATCH: WILLIAMS IN ACTION ACROSS CODES