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10th Jul 2018

Jean De Villiers on how Paul O’Connell put his foot in it during Springbok dressing room visit

Patrick McCarry

“I absolutely loved my time at Munster. Even though it was only for one season, it was a time that I really cherish.”

Jean De Villiers played just 23 times for Munster, eight years ago, but ask him about his time at the province and you’ll hardly be able to stop the man.

The Springboks legend made 109 test appearances over 13 years, captained his country 37 times, claimed a Tri Nations title with them and helped them claim the 2009 Test Series against the British & Irish Lions. Of all the venues he has played in over the course of his career, the “truly special” Thomond Park is right up there.

De Villiers joined The Hard Yards for a bonus episode and [from 16:00 below] revealed how Paul O’Connell almost let the bag out about his Munster move during that 2009 Lions Tour in South Africa.

“I absolutely loved Munster as a club and Ireland as a nation. It is somewhere that I have fallen in love with,” De Villiers said.

The former South African captain was one of the first people Munster head coach Johann Van Graan called when the opportunity to take over from Rassie erasmus at the province presented itself. De Villiers spoke from the heart and Van Graan, who was already leaning towards the move, launched into it.

“I talked to Jaco Taute as well [before his Munster move] and a couple of others over the years. Anyone who ever gets the opportunity to go there, from a South African perspective, I would definitely encourage it… I should start charging fees for these services. I may have to give [Munster chief executive] Garett Fitzgerald a call!”

Former Munster centre Shaun Payne was team manager in 2009 and, with several European sides interested in a short-term deal, he convinced De Villiers to move to Ireland. Oddly, the fact that Munster had no other Springboks on their books, at the time, was one of the clinching factors.

The deal was sorted but it was thought best to delay the official announcement until the end of the Springboks vs. Lions Test Series. A good idea, in theory, but no-one shared it with Munster, Ireland and Lions legend Paul O’Connell. De Villiers recalled:

“Having played international rugby for seven years, prior to joining Munster, I had the opportunity to get to know some of the [Irish] guys.

“While we were still busy with the Lions Series in South Africa… I think it was after the Second or Third Test, I had not yet announced that I would be joining Munster. Paulie O’Connell came into our changing room and we had a chat, and he was like, ‘Ah Jean, you’re joining us!’ 

“I was like, ‘Not yet. Not yet! They don’t know yet‘.”

De Villiers was based in Limerick after his season-long deal was confirmed and O’Connell quickly made up for putting his foot in it during that visit to the Boks’ dressing room. “Paulie and Shaun definitely helped in terms of settling in,” he says, “and so did the core guys like Ronan O’Gara, Dougie Howlett, Keith Earls, Ian Dowling and Barry Murphy. I’m still in touch with some of the guys to this day.”

The 37-year-old played club rugby for Western Province, Stormers and Leicester Tigers too but he reckons Munster is closest to South Africa’s Blue Bulls in terms of having an entire community following their every need.”

“Whenever someone tells me they are going to Ireland,” he says, “I tell them to have a drive through Limerick, go to Thomond Park and visit the museum. It is pretty good.”

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