Pierre Spies tells SIMON BORCHARDT about being let go by Montpellier, retiring from the game, his plans and the state of South African rugby.
When were you told that you would be released early from your Montpellier contract, and what was your reaction?
I was standing next to [former Springbok prop] Jannie du Plessis at the team’s end-of-season braai, cooking some French sausages, when I was called to the office and told the club was letting me go. It was a shock, because I still had two years left on my contract, which had been extended just a few months earlier. I phoned my wife, Juanné, to ensure she heard it from me first. Ten minutes later, the club sent out a press release saying that six players were being let go. Obviously, the club had known for a while this was going to happen, so they could have let us know earlier.
You had to go through exit negotiations with the club. Are you happy with the payout you received?
It was a rough month. Two weeks after getting the news from Montpellier, my daughter Avah was born, and then I had to start negotiating with the club. It wasn’t easy, as they would obviously want to pay out as little as possible, but we finally came to an agreement that pleased both parties.
Then you decided to retire, at the age of 32. Weren’t you tempted to play on; perhaps return to Japan?
It’s funny how things work. I had planned on finishing my career with Montpellier. However, I’m a firm believer that God has a plan for my life. Three months before this all happened, we had to move house and I decided I wasn’t going to pick up my family and move again for rugby. It also felt like the right time for me to finish playing.
What are your plans?
We’ve decided to move back to Pretoria. I don’t think I will get involved in coaching. I might do some commentating, but my big passion lies in upliftment and motivation, and sharing my faith in the church.
The Bulls had told you that you were no longer part of their plans when Jake White called you in mid-2015 and offered you the chance to join him at Montpellier. Was it an easy decision to make?
I didn’t have to think it over, as I believed France was where I had to be. It was an opportunity to play for a great club that already had a few South African players. I knew things would also be quite familiar for me with Jake as the coach. I really did enjoy being at Montpellier; it was a special time, and I liked working with Jake again.
A lot has been said about the South African influence at Montpellier and the unhappiness it caused among the French players. One of them claimed the South Africans didn’t bother to learn French and everything was done in English. Is that true?
That was obviously a French player who wasn’t happy having so many South Africans at the club. First of all, the South Africans played their part in terms of learning French, but it’s a difficult language to pick up quickly, so Jake did do most of his team talks in English. I think he angered some of the local guys when he let French players go. He wanted to take the club in a new direction – as new coach Vern Cotter wants to do now – and some of the French players didn’t accept that changes had to be made to get results.
Montpellier were criticised by the French media for the ‘conservative’ way they played under White. How did the French players feel about that approach?
We played decent rugby under Jake and scored a lot of tries. It all comes down to winning matches and getting results, which Jake achieved. The club is still in a growing phase. It has an ambitious chairman [Mohed Altrad], but the culture of the club is being damaged by the constant changing of players. If they can get some continuity, they can become one of the best clubs in Europe.
What were the highs and lows of your time with Montpellier?
When I got to France I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’d just had a short stint in Japan [with the Kintetsu Liners], where the game is quick and clean, and the Top 14 can be the complete opposite. But I loved playing in the Top 14. The culture, history of the clubs, games, after-match functions … it’s all totally different to South Africa, and I got to spend a lot of time with my family. The highlight from a team perspective was winning the European Challenge Cup last year. The lows were losing certain games and not going all the way in the Top 14 last season [Montpellier finished third on the log, but lost their playoff qualifier to Racing 92]. I also had a challenging year in terms of injuries. For the first time in my career, I had a lot of niggles. But there were more highs than lows and I had an amazing time.
Do you feel satisfied when you look back on your career?
I can walk away from the game very satisfied. I’ve won lots of trophies, played in amazing games and with amazing players. I have been to many great places and met many wonderful people because of the game. Rugby, though, is actually such a small part of your life and people often make it bigger than what it is. It’s a game, after all, and at the end of it you go home and sleep in your bed. You have a family and a purpose in life. Rugby gave me a great platform from which to serve my purpose, but that chapter has closed and I’m excited about the next phase of my life.
Heyneke Meyer once experimented with you on the wing. When you look at the size of New Zealand wings today, do you think you could have been successful in that position?
I have thought about it a few times, but I don’t think I would have been as good a wing as I was a loose forward. I was more involved in the game as a forward and enjoyed being part of things like the lineout. Anyway, New Zealand’s wings are much bigger and faster than me!
What are your thoughts on the state of South African rugby?
The series win against France showed the Boks are going in the right direction, but it’s a very challenging time. It’s important for SA Rugby to protect the Bok brand and identity of the team. Last year was a tough one for the Boks and it didn’t help that SA Rugby took so long to confirm Allister Coetzee’s appointment as coach. That gave him very little preparation time. It starts at the top, and if SA Rugby wants the Boks to be the best in the world, it has to manage and look after its biggest assets – the players – in the proper way.
How do you feel about SA Rugby’s 30-Test eligibility rule for overseas-based players?
It’s a good start, but SA Rugby needs to pay the players what they are worth to keep them in South Africa. It has the ability to do so. Can SA Rugby match offers from top European and Japanese clubs? SA Rugby doesn’t need to match the offers, it just needs to close the gap between what players are earning in South Africa and what they can earn overseas. SA Rugby’s biggest assets are the players, because without them the Bok brand means nothing. It needs to invest in the players, who want to be paid what they are worth, play in front of their home crowds and help add to the Bok legacy. New Zealand’s players are staying in New Zealand, because they are paid well by NZ Rugby, which receives government support, and they want to play for the All Blacks. If you take care of the players, they will take care of your brand.
Does South African rugby’s future lie in European competitions and away from Sanzaar?
South Africa has always ‘carried’ the Super Rugby competition as it dominates TV viewership numbers and helps generate most of the income. But has Super Rugby benefited us the most? You also have to consider the quality of Super Rugby, which has become quite watered down. It may make more sense for SA Rugby to be part of European competitions, because of the similar time zone and financial benefits.
– This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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