Bok legend Fourie du Preez on a career defined by mental strength, issues affecting South African rugby and what he’s been up to since retiring. Interview by RYAN VREDE.
Take me back to the period just before you retired. What was the scariest part of that decision?
The two months before I retired was the toughest of my career because I was conflicted about whether I wanted to continue playing or not. Just getting over the line was a massive mental battle. I had offers from England, France and options to stay in Japan. Once I made the decision it was quite easy. But getting there was hard because I felt like I had more to give.
Any regrets in hindsight?
None at all. The time I’ve been able to spend with my family has been invaluable. I wouldn’t change that for anything.
What are you doing professionally now?
At the beginning of 2016 I took two months off, and then I started at a small private equity company called Fledge Capital. I’ve been invested there since 2011 and my business mentor Louis van der Watt suggested that I started learning about the business with a view to become more involved in the future.
Is that aspect of business something you’ve always been interested in?
Yeah, I grew up in a home where my dad and brother were both chartered accountants and I started making private equity investments while I was still playing. I’m not sure what the next step into the business world is, but I’ve been learning at Fledge Capital for three years and I’m still enjoying it.
During your career, how conscious were you of securing your financial future? Was there a period where you spent irresponsibly?
I’ve always considered myself to be pretty good with money. During my career I’ve seen many players lose significant amounts of money on bad investments. They just throw money at the first guy that comes to them with a business proposal. I’ve always wondered why that is, considering that there are so many reputable investment options out there. It happened to me once and I made the decision that I would never lose money again.
Many consider you the greatest scrumhalf in modern history. Publicly you’ve steered clear of commenting on that. But privately, in the prime of your career, did you have a clear sense of your worth to your employer and if so, did you bring that to the negotiation table at contract talks?
It depends on the phase of my career I was in. But before we get there I must say that money has never motivated me. From childhood I had this massive internal drive to be the best player in the world in my position. So, for the most part at the Bulls, I was never too aggressive during negotiations. The environment there was conducive to me realising my goal of being the best scrumhalf in the world, and I also wanted to be part of something special. So money was a secondary consideration. During the period you speak about, though, I knew exactly where I stood in the game and what my worth to the team was. I say this in all humility, but there was a period in my prime where, if I didn’t play, the team would struggle. My outlook changed later in the game again, where family became more important to me. There was a period while in Japan where I never played all the games for the Springboks [sacrificing significant match fees] but that didn’t mean I never wanted to be the best in the world. In fact, it was my ability to spend more time with the family that provided what I needed to reach that goal.
Take me into the mind of an elite player. I’m re-reading a book called What Sport Tells Us About Life. The author cites his research of elite sportsmen, claiming that they all share the same, often irrational, belief that they can influence the result of any given match. Even in defeat, he says, that belief remains as strong as ever. I’ve seen you do this so many times. Describe to me what that experience is like from the athlete’s perspective.
I wish I could explain it to you but I can’t. When I was younger I didn’t have that belief. But it’s built over time and through experience. The more you influence the result, the more confidence you gain to do it again. I would always tap into those memories, even the tough ones, like losing the Currie Cup final in 2005 and that mishap [Du Preez dropped an up-and-under that was collected by Free State’s Meyer Bosman, who scored the match-winning try]. There are numerous tough matches and seasons that I used to become a better version of myself. Those things never destroyed my confidence. In 2011, after I came back [to the Springboks] from Japan, most of the critics said I was done. I never doubted myself for one second. In fact, I felt like I was the best I had ever been.
I disagree, I felt like 2009 was your best year. I saw you do things that year that defied belief. I thought the performance against the Chiefs in the Vodacom Super Rugby final was the best I’ve seen from a scrumhalf in the tournament’s history. And it goes back to my previous question about belief in trying circumstances. The Vodacom Bulls went down early, and then you scored two tries and created the third to kill the game. That’s that belief that I’m trying to understand in an elite sportsman.
For me it was always about my mind. Two years previously I played in the Super Rugby final with a busted shoulder. I was in excruciating pain and I didn’t enjoy the game. In 2009 I was playing injury free and I had massive confidence as a result. That carried into the Rugby Championship. I was just playing with so much belief.
I remember interviewing Victor Matfield in 2008, and he spoke about the power of your presence in a change room. He was referring to sitting in a change room with you, you wouldn’t even have to say anything but your teammates knew that because you were there, they had a better chance of winning. Were you aware of your presence?
As I got older, I knew privately that I could be the difference. But at no stage did I have a sense of how other guys saw me. I never really thought about it, although I would often sit in a Bulls or Bok change room and be inspired by the quality of players in there with me. So I guess it’s not a stretch to think I did the same for them.
I’ve got a friend that played football with Thierry Henry at the New York Red Bulls. He tells me stories about how Henry would become extremely frustrated at his teammates for not being able to do things that came so naturally to him. He didn’t understand that he was gifted in a way they weren’t. Did that ever happen to you? Were you ever Henry?
[Laughs] No, no! For me it was more frustrating to see a player not try everything to maximise his potential. I understood that players were gifted to different degrees, but I could never tolerate guys who would just go through the motions. It happened a few times at the Bulls and the Boks. In fact, I got more frustrated with certain coaches who had their interests in mind, rather than the team’s.
No comment [laughs].
Let’s move on then! Perhaps you could give us insight into what it would’ve taken for an elite athlete like Tiger Woods to come back and win the Masters despite all of the pressure, both known and unknown?
That was a comeback that I’ve never seen in my life as an athlete. I mean, I’ve made comebacks from adversity, but to go through everything he did and to win a major after all of that requires strength of mind that’s almost supernatural. I’d say the main thing is to drown out the voices that are saying you can’t do it. People make the mistake of thinking elite athletes use that as their main motivation. That’s not true. You just try to drown out the noise and focus on what you know you’re capable of.
There are a range of theories on how mental strength is developed. What’s your take?
I’m not sure but from personal experience many different things contribute to it. Certainly life experiences, both good and bad, and how you respond to that, make a big difference. Perhaps genetics has a role to play, as well as how you’re brought up. I’m sure that it’s the most important characteristic to become an elite athlete and then to stay at that level.
How important is it to suffer significant setbacks early in your career, as a means of building that mental toughness? I’ve seen too many schoolboy prodigies fold at pro level once things don’t go their way and wonder why that is.
It was critically important for me. I still remember being dropped from the U14As to the U14Bs at Affies and what that did to me emotionally. I remember not making the SA Schools side. The drive inside of me was still there. The belief that I was the best was still there. I was devastated in those moments but I never for a second thought about giving up. I suppose it has to do with how you respond to setbacks. In hindsight those moments were critical for me at that young age.
Our conversion rate of gifted young players into world-class talent is worrying. Since 2009 South Africa has had three players win the World Rugby Junior Player of the Year – Jan Serfontein, Handré Pollard and Juarno Augustus. We’ve had Shaun Arendorff and Curwin Bosch nominated. Yet only Pollard has established himself as a Test regular. The two winners from New Zealand in that period, Aaron Cruden and Julian Savea, are superstars at international level. Where are we going wrong?
It’s very disappointing. I’m not sure how the system works but I think a starting point is that our player pool is too big. We’re just giving away too many contracts and that affects the quality of coaching these players are able to get. I’d rather the money spent on giving average players provincial contracts be used to get the best coaches and coaching resources, and have them invest their energy into a small pool of highly gifted players. Right now there is a failure in the contracting system and a failure in coaching. Those two things contribute significantly to the problem you identified.
When we last spoke you were two years into life in Japan and said that it had been a great life decision because it took you out of your comfort zone and made you a better player. Do you think Pollard could benefit from a move abroad for those reasons?
Yes, but he needs to go to a club with a great structure and great coaching and conditioning staff who can help make him the best flyhalf in the world. It’s pointless moving for money or life experience alone. I went to Suntory because I knew Eddie Jones would improve me as a player. At Handré’s age  and with his talent he should be making that decision primarily on whether it will take him closer to making him the world’s best. For what it’s worth, I don’t think he can become better if he moves to France. The games are too slow. Even Cruden is struggling.
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