• Bulls scrumhalves: Learning from the master

    Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier reaped the rewards of working with Vodacom Bulls consultant Fourie du Preez, writes SIMNIKIWE XABANISA in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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    On the face of it, Bulls scrumhalves Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier couldn’t be more different.

    Apart from the black-and-white-guy thing, Van Zyl’s game is low on mercury, with its heavy reliance on basics, while Papier has so much X factor one isn’t sure he himself knows what he’ll do next.

    Off the field, the understated Van Zyl appears to be a salesman of the short-back-and-sides approach to life, and Papier – to quote the kids – is all about the sleeve tattoos and that Instagram life.

    The one thing they have in common, other than being the human Jack Russells that are scrumhalves, is that in 2018 they both laboured under the misapprehension they were in the running to make Rassie Erasmus’ Rugby World Cup squad, spending that entire year as Faf de Klerk’s understudies.

    But when it came to the final 31, the two had been replaced by Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach, who added insult to injury by going on to win the Webb Ellis Cup with the Boks while their predecessors were relegated to watching it on TV like the rest of us.

    The interesting thing about the two players’ reaction to the snub by Erasmus – who probably didn’t soften the blow by not exactly giving them a heads up about the oncoming disappointment – is how they went the inward route.

    Van Zyl was speaking for both players when he said the major realisation when they finally woke up from their nightmare was that if they wanted to get back in with the Springboks, their games needed working on.

    ‘I made peace with that because the way Herschel and Cobus performed and made an impact worked perfectly for the Springboks,’ began Van Zyl. ‘For me, the biggest thing I realised was that there was something I needed to change with my game.

    ‘If I wanted to be part of that setup again, there were some things I needed to change and work on.’

    Not only did Papier not have time to wallow in his omission – his loan stint at Sale Sharks came not long after the Springbok World Cup squad announcement – he also got an immediate chance to get started on his work-ons.

    ‘It was a great opportunity for me to work with the coaches who worked with Faf,’ said Papier. ‘That was good for me and helped clear my head. With the wet conditions at Sale what I learned most was game management, box-kicking and my passing.’

    The emergence of livewire scrumhalves like Sanele Nohamba and Zak Burger – and  to a lesser extent, the combative Morne van den Berg and gifted Jaden Hendrikse – has muddied up where Papier and Van Zyl are on the Bok pecking order, and the rugby season being suspended for six months by the Covid-19 outbreak gave them precious little time to work on their games.

    But when the solution of how to bridge the gap came, it was as elegant as it was of the heavy artillery variety. Said help came in the form of one Fourie du Preez being roped in as a consultant by his former Springbok coach, the Bulls’ current director of rugby Jake White.

    Not that his CV needs repeating, Du Preez – once anointed by Eddie Jones as one of the smartest players he’s ever coached – is easily South Africa’s best scrumhalf, what with his contributions in the Boks’ Tri-Nations (two), World Cup and British and Irish Lions wins.

    Given his mythical standing in the game, Papier and Van Zyl were only too happy when White asked them if they would be fine with working with Du Preez on a consultancy basis.

    Van Zyl not only went to the same school as Du Preez (Affies), he already had an informal ‘mentorship’ – marked by the odd meeting for coffee – in place with him. Papier didn’t, but both idolised the former Bok growing up.

    The tutelage, which happens once a week over a period of up to two hours, sounds like classic Du Preez in its self-analysis. When he was still in high school, Du Preez once famously employed the services of a sprinting coach over the summer because during one game he’d had a line-break he couldn’t make stick as he didn’t trust his pace to get him to the tryline.

    As a result, according to Papier, his emphasis on helping the two scrumhalves is through self-criticism: ‘He asks us how we feel the game from the weekend went and what we think of our performances. He wants us to tell him how we feel and then he’ll give his thoughts on how he felt our game went.’

    Officially, the specific areas in which Van Zyl and Papier’s games needed help were ‘to be more of a threat with ball in hand’, and the speed and accuracy of pass and the ubiquitous kicking game, respectively.

    But over the course of the past few months they’ve learned more than that and besides, with both players citing Du Preez’s observations of small things they didn’t even think about that were crucial to their efficacy in the role.

    ‘Fourie can pick up small, technical things that can make a big difference,’ explained Van Zyl. ‘For instance, one of the things he was the best at was the way he ran an arc and attacked the pillars with the same movement, so the picture was always the same for the defence.

    ‘He was able to hit the front runner, hit the forwards, play someone off his shoulder and still pass out to the 10 out the back with one movement. But everything always looked the same.

    ‘That’s what we’ve been working on: whenever you’re carrying the ball it’s basically on your hip and you’re locked and loaded but the picture must always be the same for the defence so they don’t know which runner you’re going to hit.’

    Papier said working with Du Preez had alerted him to things he had never thought of to the point where this has been his steepest learning curve in all his time at the Bulls. ‘An example is how your feet should always target the guy you’re passing to and the hand from which you’re passing should always finish on your shoulder.’

    Van Zyl supported Papier’s testimony on the footwork: ‘The work on our footwork has been massive, like the way your feet move when you approach the ball, and the way you get out of the breakdown to make sure you’ll be quicker to the next one.

    ‘So how fast your footwork is, and its consistency – especially under pressure – makes a difference to how quickly you get the ball out.’

    Papier probably summed it up best when he shared his greatest take-away from the experience: ‘The most important thing I’ve learned from our interactions with Fourie is my decision-making. He challenges us a lot about where to pass in terms of the guys running off you – the inside lines and outside lines.

    ‘He puts you under a lot of pressure to make the right decisions.’

    A significant reason Van Zyl and Papier struggled to get into the Bok squad after 2018 was because they have mostly split their game time, a situation with which they’ve gone from being frustrated to accepting that their differences were beneficial to the team.

    By the looks of it, whoever kicks on from Du Preez’s tutelage the most will separate himself from the other and again advance his claims for national recognition.

    JAKE WHITE ON FOURIE DU PREEZ’S IMPACT

    ‘All we do is let someone like Ivan van Zyl train with Fourie du Preez once per week. You can see the impact that Fourie has with helping the halfbacks. With someone like Embrose Papier as well, I can tell you it’s all about the little things and the detail that Du Preez has added. It’s like confidence. When you have a guy like him, coming in and helping them with their technical stuff and understanding about the game and getting a feel for what their roles are, you can never underestimate what sort of knowledge and intellectual property they are getting.’

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    Craig Lewis