Jean and Conrad: "Centres of Attention"

14 Mar 2014
Jean and Conrad: "Centres of Attention"

The year 1981 is notable in rugby history for the infamous Springboks tour of New Zealand, but while it divided the nation, if not the global community, two families in different corners of the world gave birth to two happy and healthy little boys.

Despite the duo eventually having a significant impact on the fortunes of two of the great rugby nations, the affairs of apartheid and protests were a long way away from a couple of small idyllic regions.

The first was in the picturesque town of Paarl in Cape Town on February 24, with Andre and Louise de Villiers welcoming their second son Jean.

A few months later in the Taranaki town of Hawera on October 12, Trevor and Marian Smith welcomed Conrad, their third boy – and another of what would eventually be four very competitive children.

An area in the South-West of the Republic famous for the wine production, and a hub that many regard as one of the primary milk producing regions in the Southern Hemisphere, both ideal environments that would define two players that have already cemented their respective places as arguably the finest midfielders their countries have ever produced.

Jean de Villiers, nearly nine months Conrad Smith’s senior, attended Paarl Gimnasium, a Western Cape institution that has produced over twenty Springboks since being founded in 1858.

Despite the noted presence of the reverend Stephanus Jacobus du Toit, who was prominent in translating the Bible into Afrikaans, any concepts of theology were put aside by Jean, who decided to halt his studies at Stellenbosch University to concentrate full-time on rugby.

It was while featuring for the Maties at the second oldest European settlement in South Africa that he met his future wife Marlie.

A 20-year-old de Villiers debuted for Western Province the same year he rose to prominence playing for the South African Sevens team.

After featuring in the third IRB World Sevens Series, Jean won a bronze medal for his country a season later in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester – which led to his selection in the all-conquering Under-21s team that claimed that season’s age-grade World Cup (now defunct and replaced with the Junior World Championship).

At 21 the ‘utility back’, as de Villiers was still to become a specialist centre, made his Test debut against France in Marseille, until a horror knee injury saw him taken from the field early.

His first major injury would not interrupt a path that would eventually lead to de Villiers being named the 54th Springboks skipper.

Smith’s introduction to first class rugby was delayed, as the Francis Douglas Memorial College (FDMC) product originally was noted as a fast bowler in cricket.

It was here, not in rugby, that he gained his nickname ‘the Snake’.

While he may writhe out of tackles like his popular name sake, it was his ability on the deck in the game featuring a piece of willow and a leather ball that saw him “slither around in the covers”.

Smith played some rugby, originally as a halfback, and while his physique (by his own admission) might not have matched other players, it was here his determination and competitive juices began to flow.

Yet while de Villiers was moving though South Africa’s ranks, Smith moved from his country town to the big smoke of Wellington, enrolling in Victoria University where he earned his LLB with honours and soon after this the eventual All Blacks centre was admitted to the High Court as a qualified barrister and solicitor.

Unlike his counterpart from the Republic and many senior New Zealand players, Smith did not play much rugby through the recognised development systems.

In 2003 Smith made his debut for the Wellington Lions, and just a year later made both his Hurricanes and All Blacks debut.

The same season where Sir Graham Henry was appointed All Blacks coach, replacing John Mitchell – who was FDMC’s college first New Zealand Test player, Smith was the second – de Villiers stamped his mark on rugby’s highest stage.

Henry, Smith and the All Blacks were unable to stop a Springboks team that gave Jake White a dream start in what was also his first year as an international mentor for his country.De Villiers and Paarl co-student Marius Joubert would finish the 2004 Tri-Nations as joint leading try scorers, while New Zealand looked distinctly second best, meaning Smith had little influence on proceedings.

Some believed this was the year where Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer entered the twilight of their representative senior careers, while the All Blacks saw Tana Umaga emerge as one of their great captains, partnering with Smith in what would become arguably the best centre combination in the game.

For the major landscape, this represented a significant turning point.

White would guide the likes of de Villiers and other senior Springboks like Schalk Burger (yet another Paarl graduate) from their second Tri-Nations title in 2004 to the ultimate symbol of rugby supremacy in World Cup success three years later.

Smith would become the long term successor to Umaga, and the midfield, which was for a period a problem for the All Blacks, would become one of the great platforms of which New Zealand would build their success.

The qualified lawyer is now mentioned as being among, if not better, than the likes of Umaga, Frank Bunce, Joe Stanley, Bruce Robertson and Ian McRae.

While Smith laconically has mentioned his smaller frame, a cost of this has been a minor catalogue of injuries which has seen him feature in more Super Rugby matches than he has Test games.

On the eve of his 100th Super Rugby appearance, Smith has played 75 Tests, the most capped centre in an All Blacks jersey but knee injuries and concussions have curtailed what could have potentially been 20-odd more internationals.

De Villiers has been victim to injuries as well, but this year the 96-Test veteran will bring up his century for his country.

But first, in Super Rugby Round 5 de Villiers will become the 24th South African player to crack 100 matches in the South’s toughest provincial rugby competition.

His reputation is such that that he holds court with the likes of Danie Gerber, Ryk van Schoor, Francois du Toit Roux and Peter Whipp as one of the classiest yet hardest centres South Africa has ever produced.

On the eve of a combined double ton, some say de Villiers record is indication of the Springboks captain’s lack of recent rest, in a time where Hurricanes skipper Smith is playing Super Rugby after a New Zealand Rugby sanctioned period of extended leave late 2013.

It would be a brave pundit to suggest that a current World XV wouldn’t feature the two in the elitist of rugby midfields, while both will be crucially important figureheads in a tournament being held in England next year.

With the two centre legends about to bring up their century, we will once again by privy to their great talents this upcoming round.

To both, congratulations on your milestone, we are all lucky to have you.