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Derek Alberts: One sure thing in SA rugby

Every gambler is schooled in the knowledge that there is no such thing as a sure thing, but when it came to the SA Rugby Awards, there wasn't a punter in the house who wouldn't have backed Jean de Villiers to walk away with the night's biggest prize on Wednesday.

The Springbok captain enjoyed arguably his greatest year to date in 2013, an impressive accomplishment given that he's been playing at the highest level for well over a decade. He stood head and shoulders above his teammates in both performance and personality, leading the Boks to ten victories from twelve, their only losses coming against the undefeated All Blacks.

Question marks were raised when Heyneke Meyer first appointed de Villiers as his skipper when he took over as coach in 2012. While the veteran certainly had the captaincy credentials, having led the Stormers for a number of years, many were of the opinion that the choice was merely a stopgap given the lack of experience at Meyer's disposal.

The other issue was the fact that de Villiers was a back.

Springbok rugby is notorious for making captains out of forwards, so much so that before de Villiers, Joost van der Westhuizen and Naas Botha were the only backline players to have worn the armband during the post-isolation era. In fact, one of the main reasons why British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan selected Martin Johnson as his skipper for the successful 1997 tour of South Africa was because he wanted the Bok captain at the time, Gary Teichmann, to look up when he came face to face with his opposite number.

In South Africa, size counts, and McGeechan knew it.

That's not to say de Villiers is small. At 6'2 and over 100 kg, he's one of the bigger centres around, and last year he used his bulk to maximum advantage as he played a far more direct game, allowing those around him to run riot. It also allowed him to cross the chalk on no less than five occasions, including a spectacular effort against Wales in Cardiff, which was ultimately named the SA try of the year.

De Villiers was widely acknowledged to be the world's form centre last year, yet despite the plaudits, he somehow missed out on making the shortlist for International Rugby Board (IRB) player of the year, with Eben Etzebeth the sole representative from these shores. The IRB are famous for overlooking South African talent, and while they certainly didn't disgrace themselves by nominating the hulking lock, they could have done a lot worse than adding de Villiers to the mix, especially considering how successful the Boks proved to be.

While his talents on the field are well documented, it's when he's off the park that de Villiers really shines. Taking over the reigns from the popular and eloquent John Smit was always going to be a difficult task, yet de Villiers made the transition seem almost seamless. He was funny, well spoken, and never batted an eye to some of the trickier questions thrown at him by the media.

The journos liked him, the players liked him, and most importantly, the fans liked him.

It was no surprise then that when the envelope for player of the year was opened at the SA Rugby Awards at Gold Reef City on Wednesday night, the name Jean de Villiers was printed across the winning ticket, as he became only the sixth player in history to win the award more than once.

I asked him afterwards if it was the sweetest prize he'd ever won, and he replied, "It's amazing, but nothing comes close to my two daughters."

Take a bow Jean.

Derek Alberts is an EWN sports anchor.

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