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Japanese stint rejuvenates Du Preez

  • 25 Aug 2013

In the May 2012 issue of SA Rugby magazine, JON CARDINELLI discovered how a season in Japan had benefited the scrumhalf.

Fourie du Preez’s decision to play in Japan has yielded an interesting and unexpected result. Two trophies in five months is a fine haul for a top player, even one as decorated as the Springbok veteran, but who could have predicted that Du Preez would return to South Africa fitter, stronger and having taken his attacking game to a new level?

In late February, Du Preez’s club Suntory Sungoliath captured the Top League title after winning 12 of their 13 matches. Three weeks later they won the Japan Rugby Championship to complete the domestic double. It was a massive result for the club, but for somebody as accomplished as Du Preez, there was more to be gained than silverware. In a short space of time he’d been forced to alter his game to suit the Asian rugby ethos. And the results could see him returning to the Test scene as a more complete player.

Former Bok technical adviser Eddie Jones first worked with Du Preez in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup, and played a big role in bringing the great No 9 to Suntory at the end of 2011. Jones knew what Du Preez was capable of, but the South African would need to adapt if he was going to succeed in Japan.

‘He’s one of the best players in the world, so you don’t really tell these players to play a certain way. But having said that, he had to change his focus. It’s probably the quickest competition in the world in that there’s less emphasis on physicality,’ explains Jones. ‘Teams are able to generate very quick ruck ball, and the Japanese are generally very fast over the first 10m. So what that means is that your attacking ball is quicker, but the line speed of the defence is also much faster. Fourie has had to adjust in terms of his fitness, but he’s a good athlete and it didn’t take him too long.’

Apart from Du Preez, Suntory fielded another seasoned Springbok in Danie Rossouw. The former Bulls players reckon the level of competition in Japan is on a par with South Africa’s Currie Cup, although they concede the Top League demands more in terms of speed.

‘I was really surprised when I first got there, the [local] guys are skilful and happy to learn,’ says Du Preez, who is contracted to Suntory until the end of March 2013. ‘A lot of people think it’s easy rugby, but it was pretty tough. If you watch any top game the skill and structure levels are top class. It’s been quite refreshing.

'The game is not as physical as Super Rugby, but definitely faster. There are fewer set pieces, fewer kicks, more quick taps and in general everything is done at 100% pace. At Suntory the focus is attacking, aggressive rugby, meaning there’s an emphasis on keeping the ball more and playing on the gainline with options from No 9 and 10.

‘Obviously I have been used to a more field-position/conservative approach at the Bulls and Boks, so it took me a few weeks to get used to the Japanese style. The intensity we had at Suntory’s training sessions was very high and that helped me adjust my game.’

Jones highlights Du Preez’s value to Suntory during the Japan Rugby Championship knockout games, and at the same time suggests that Du Preez could take what he’d gained in Japan and use it to good effect in South Africa.

‘He returns to South Africa in fantastic physical shape, and would have taken his skills to a new level. That’s what this time in Japan has done for him. You look at the players who compete in Japan and then return to Super Rugby. Peter Grant has made an impact for the Stormers as has Tamati Ellison for the Highlanders. And there is no way those two are in the same class as Fourie. So yes, you can expect him to be much better if he decides to play for South Africa. He’s going to be at his physical peak in the next two or three years; I think he still has plenty to give.’

Du Preez agrees that his time in Japan has given him a lot more than a couple of winner’s medals. From a rugby and lifestyle perspective, it’s an experience he will never forget.

‘A lot of time is spent on individual coaching and conditioning so I’m in much better shape now than I was when I first arrived after the 2011 World Cup. I was forced to look at the game in a different way in terms of the pace. As a player I’ve definitely improved in a few areas like my speed and clearing at the rucks.

‘Experiencing a completely different culture was also one of the reasons I decided on Japan. The Japanese are a remarkable people who work really hard, are very friendly and helpful. The language is difficult, but I try and the Japanese try.’

Du Preez wasn’t the only one who needed to adapt to a new way of life, as he took his wife and young son with him to Tokyo for that five-month stint. The Du Preezs embraced the challenge of living in an environment very different to that of Pretoria or anywhere in the Western world, and even spent their free time exploring the surrounding mountains as well as the vibrant city of Tokyo itself.

Du Preez also took advantage of the fact that there were some familiar faces at the club. He first lived in the same apartment building as Jones and his family, before moving closer to the Suntory training ground where former Wallabies flank George Smith resided. There were also braais with his old Bulls buddy Rossouw, as well as a few skiing trips with JP Nel, another well known South African rugby player who competes in Japan.

‘It was a bit easier initially to have those guys around. I’ve lived in Pretoria my whole life, so getting out of there was quite an adjustment. It is something really different. As an international player you see the whole world except Asia. Japan is an awesome place. I was only there for a few months, but it was a life-changing experience.’

While he mixed with old team-mates and former rivals, he also made an effort to integrate himself into the local structures and mentor the young Japanese players at Suntory.

‘He’s all about helping the younger players,’ notes Jones, who took control of Japan’s national side shortly after the conclusion of the domestic season in March. ‘Fourie often worked with the two other scrumhalves at Suntory individually, long after regular training was complete. It goes to show that he’s still a strong team man and was not just in Japan for himself.’

Du Preez will rejoin Suntory at the end of the year, but there is every chance that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer may require his services before then. Du Preez initially signed with Suntory believing it would mark the end of his illustrious international career, but given the way the Boks slumped at the 2011 World Cup and his subsequent rejuvenating time in Japan, the 30-year-old admits a comeback could be on the cards.

‘I originally thought the World Cup would be it for me, but losing to Australia in the quarter-finals might have changed that. Going to Japan was a lot better than I thought and I was able to get back into shape,’ he says.

‘Maybe that hunger is back again. It is still too early to say. I haven’t got around it in my head whether it will be good or bad for me [to rejoin the Boks]. Never say never.’

At the time of writing, Du Preez was yet to decide on his future with the Boks, but his long-time mentor has no doubt that South Africa could do with his strengths, both well-established and recently acquired, in a year of rebuilding.

‘He’s only 30 and we could see him playing some of his best rugby over the next few years,’ says Jones. ‘He’s also in the best condition he’s been in for a long time, and I’ve noticed the difference that’s had on his overall performance.

‘The only question I would have is: Does Fourie still have the desire to play international rugby? It’s something I know he will think deeply about before he makes a decision. I believe he could still make an impact in a starting capacity, and it also wouldn’t hurt to have him in a mentoring role. He’s one of the sharpest players in the game, and any team that taps into that intelligence will benefit enormously. To have him looking after a scrumhalf like Francois [Hougaard] will have long-term benefits for the Boks and obviously for Francois himself.’

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Photo: Japan Rugby Magazine

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