23 Apr 14
With just days to go to Munster's Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulon in Marseilles, the Munster squad continued their preparations with a full squad session in Musgrave Park yesterday.
Five tries in 11 games, two as a replacement, may not sound too bad a return, but six defeats in 14 games, including a 30-0 hammering against arch-rivals Leinster in the Magners League, is not the kind of return Munster coach Tony McGahan was hoping for.
Nevertheless, Munster and De Villiers stand on the threshold of reaching the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for the 11th year in a row and are only five points adrift of top spot in their defence of the Magners League crown at the half-way stage.
"I struggled at the beginning when I arrived in Ireland and my form has been patchy. It didn't help that the team weren't playing well as a unit to begin with," said the 55 times capped De Villiers.
"But being dropped to the bench for the two games against Perpignan helped me to turn the corner. Now it's all about digging deep and working hard, but I feel much closer now to where I was as a player before I arrived than when I first started.
"It has been a difficult December and start to January, especially with the weather. My body is used to starting pre-season training at this time of year. I got a picture message from one of my former team mates at the Stormers the other day showing the temperature gauge in his car. It was 39 degrees, which is in stark contrast to the weather we've been having in Limerick.
"But all the other players have been fantastic and have really helped me. From a Munster point of view, the Heineken Cup didn't start off in the way we wanted it to with defeat at Northampton. But the back-to-back victories over Perpignan have put us back in charge of our Pool and been the highlights of the campaign so far. Our victory in Perpignan was the best game we have played this season.
"It was a really strong collective performance - a great team effort. It was a performance that revealed a lot to me about the Munster culture. Paul O'Connell is a great leader, but he gets so much support from the other guys around him as well. Then there is Munster's 16th man, their incredible fans.
"We didn't think we'd have much support in Perpignan, but it was amazing to see, and hear, so many of them in the ground. They really are full-on supporters and they back their team in bad times as well as good.
"The atmosphere they help to create at games, especially at Thomond Park is fantastic. I've been used to playing in front of big crowds with the Stormers in the Super 14, but when there are 30-40,000 in a 50,000 stadium there are still big spaces. In the smaller grounds in Europe you really feel the crowd - they become part of the vibe. The Munster fans really are our 16th player and its great being on the pitch when they are backing you."
It has been an eventful season for the 27-year-old De Villiers, who headed to Munster shortly after winning his second Tri-Nations title with the Springboks. That triumph came in the wake, of course, of the test series triumph over the British & Irish Lions.
When he left South Africa De Villiers fully expected his Test career to end, but Pieter de Villiers called him into the squad for the big clash against Ireland's Grand Slammers at Croke Park and he picked up his 55th cap off the bench in what he described as a "momentous occasion".
"That is certainly a game I'm never going to forget, even though we lost 15-10. It was great to get the call to play for the Springboks once again, but the real thrill was playing with my old mates against so many of my new Munster team mates," he said.
But now his focus is firmly fixed on chasing his Heineken Cup dream and trying to join the five South Africans who have won the world club game's top award in the past - Glen Gelderbloom, Trevor Halstead, Dan Human, Garry Pagel and Shaun Payne.
"It's now all about getting the right results in the final two fixtures. Going to Treviso and winning won't be an easy task because they have really tightened things up there. Then we have Northampton at home to round things off," added De Villiers.
"Leinster have set the tone with their brand of rugby and, as defending champions, they will definitely be in the running. Biarritz are putting some good performances together and getting on with the job and I'm sure they will be challenging at the end. Then you have to consider Toulouse, who are top team who always peak at the right time in this tournament."