Ryan Vrede

Spies the beautiful letdown

With Pierre Spies 100 Super Rugby caps and 50 Tests into his career, RYAN VREDE wonders how much longer we'll continue to hope in a player who has the potential to reign?  

I've watched Spies since before his professional debut, in the days before Heyneke Meyer convinced Spies that he would be a Springbok if he converted from a wing to an eighthman. I've interviewed him for SA Rugby magazine and for various website pieces more times than I can remember. My early writing as a young journalist reflected my high regard of Spies. Over time I've come to realise my praise may have been premature.

Certainly any player who collects half a century of Test caps for the Springboks is no mug. Indeed Spies is a fine player, who, at his best, is among the finest in his position in the game. But I thought he'd be more than he is, and I wasn't alone. There were no shortage of respected rugby men to lavish liberal praise on Spies in his formative years and thereafter. Among them were those who predicted that he would develop into a No 8 without peer.

Yet one could mount a strong argument for starting a string of No 8s ahead of him in a World XV. Kieran Read is by some distance the pre-eminent in his position in the game. Those in the know in the northern hemisphere would advocate Ireland's Jamie Heaslip and Italy's Sergio Parrisse ahead of Spies. In South Africa Duane Vermeulen made a statement in 2012 in Spies's absence, offering a physical dimension on attack and defence that Spies hadn't with any consistency in his Test career.

Why is this relevant? Because Spies appeared to have all the physical and technical qualities to leave these men in his wake. He appeared to have so much promise that a reflection of this nature 100 Super Rugby matches and 50 Tests into his career seemed unthinkable. If, in his early career, we had to cast our thoughts towards this point we surely would have spoken about a very different player who has emerged. A more dominant one. One who commands the attention of and stirs concern among elite coaches and players.

At present he is a lesson in tempering praise and having a more measured assessment of young players of Spies's ilk, certainly for me and those who elevated Spies, through our words, onto a pedestal he hasn't looked fit to occupy.

And yet my hope that Spies will become that player refuses to die, despite my best efforts to murder it. I've written extensively about preference for Vermeulen in light of how much he paled in comparison to the Stormers man in 2012. I've established in my mind that Spies's problem is rooted in his lack of mongrel – that controlled aggression that Vermeulen and indeed those No 8s mentioned earlier have in addition to their immense technical and physical gifts. I've determined from extensive discussion with numerous elite coaches that that quality is uncoachable, and thus abandoned, I thought, any hope of Spies becoming the player I, and so many, believe he should be, especially given that he has no equal physically.

Then I consider that Spies is just 27. Professionally I've never seen a player of that age make the marked improvement it would take for Spies to realise the dimension of his potential I believe is yet uncharted. Certainly I've seen excellent players at that stage of their careers evolve into geniuses – Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Dan Carter among them. But never an above average player, which Spies is, suddenly catapult into the stratosphere. What we've seen at this stage of a player's career is usually about as good as you're going to get. 

So what those who share my won't-die belief are holding on for is a rugby miracle. We somehow hope his mongrel is enlivened, that he becomes as adept at the tight game as he is when allowed the time and space that suits his physical constitution and athletic qualities, that there is greater substance and not just the threat of greatness.

How much longer can hope live before we completely abandon it?

Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images

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