WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Springboks captain Jean de Villiers cannot quite believe that he is about to play his 100th test match, given he felt he might not even get a second after he destroyed ligaments in his knee, seven minutes into his debut.
The centre spent nine months recuperating after that test against France in Marseille in November 2002, returned to play a game as the Springboks warmed up for the 2003 World Cup in Australia, then suffered a shoulder injury.
He then spent another eight months in rehabilitation and he said on Tuesday, as a younger man his resolve to return to top-class rugby had been tested.
"Yeah, it has been a long road," he told reporters ahead of the Springboks' Rugby Championship clash with New Zealand on Saturday. "There were definitely times when I did not think I would get to number two.
"Making your international debut is always special, getting injured seven minutes into it is not what you dream about.
"Being out for nine months, coming back for the World Cup and getting 15 minutes then getting injured again in the warmup, another eight months out. You certainly test your character.
"I went through a lot of hard times but I believe I got through it stronger.
"I never imagined I would get to 100. I feel very fortunate in that regard, because I never thought I would get to two."
De Villiers, who also missed all but 40 minutes of South Africa's successful 2007 World Cup campaign after tearing his bicep, will become his country's fifth centurion on Saturday.
Victor Matfield (114), John Smit (111), Percy Montgomery (102) and Bryan Habana, who brought up the mark in last week's 24-23 loss to the Wallabies, are the other members of the club.
Smit and Habana both lost their 100th test matches, something that South African media have suggested is a centurion's curse.
"To look at the records and to see that John and Bryan lost their 100th, I won't go down that road," de Villiers said with a laugh.
"Whether it's your first or 100th, you play to win and I'd like to think we will be highly motivated to win and do the Bok jersey proud."
Born in the Western Cape city of Paarl about an hour east of Cape Town, de Villiers's talent was nurtured at the rugby hotbed of Paarl Gimnasium and then developed further at Stellenbosch University where he met his wife Marlie.
He played for South Africa's under-19s and under-21s, with whom he won their World Cup in 2002, the sevens side and then made his test debut in 2002.
After his initial knee injury on debut, he did not appear again for the Springboks for two years, but has since become the most capped South African centre (84), with his other 15 caps coming on the wing.
He was made captain of the national side in 2012 after the retirement of Smit by coach Heyneke Meyer, who was initially reluctant to name a successor to the hooker with Schalk Burger, who many had tipped to be his first choice, out injured.
The thoughtful de Villiers has since set the tone for the team in the past three seasons, keen to ensure the side provides inspiration to more than just those in the rugby-supporting strongholds.
"What I have tried to tell the young guys in our team is what we stand for is that we compete when we put the Springboks' jersey on, we give our all every time we play and make south Africa proud," he said.
"We are a team for everyone in South Africa, a team that all the kids can really aspire to and relate to."
De Villiers said his father Andre, who also played for Western Province, and wife, who was pregnant with their third child, would attend the match in Wellington, the second time he has met the All Blacks for a personal milestone.
"When it comes to rugby that's the ultimate challenge to play against the All Blacks," the 33-year-old said. "I was fortunate enough to play my 50th against them in Durban and now for my 100th as well against New Zealand.
"I do believe that South Africa-New Zealand test matches are pretty special and down the line we have had some fantastic games.
"Saturday will be no different."
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)
Did you find this article insightful?