The form and fitness of Fourie du Preez remains integral to the Springboks’ World Cup campaign, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
There have been well documented injury-related question marks hovering over several key squad members leading up to the World Cup, but it’s Du Preez who remains the most unknown entity.
Jean de Villiers is the designated Bok captain and has at least featured in two games this season. Willem Alberts made his comeback from injury against Argentina in Buenos Aires and has said he is now over all his niggles.
Duane Vermeulen has returned to training, and although he will need to be managed carefully on his return from a serious neck injury, he is one player whose recovery warrants taking a relative risk on.
Then we come to Du Preez, a player who has plied his trade in the low-profile Japanese club scene for the past few years. It’s provided an environment where he has been able to preserve his body, but whether his game sharpness remains up to Test level remains in question.
The soft-spoken Du Preez honestly acknowledged after his World Cup selection that a couple of recent injuries had put some perfectly understandable doubts in his mind. He’d hoped to feature in a couple of Rugby Championship matches this season in order to be able to get back up to speed, but a niggling knee injury curtailed his involvement, and so it’s no wonder that he hasn’t been 100% confident about his fitness.
These final two weeks leading up to the Boks’ World Cup opener remain of utmost importance to Du Preez as he looks to regain some of that lost confidence and to begin re-establishing some semblance of form. The good news from the Bok camp on Monday was that Du Preez had been able to take full part in contact training, with Bok doctor Craig Roberts confirming that he was pleased with the 33-year-old's progress.
The Du Preez of 2007 simply had no peer. His performances throughout that World Cup, and particularly in the pool match against England, were simply world-class. Two years later he was named the SA Rugby Player of the Year, and he remained a force to be reckoned with at the 2011 tournament.
Du Preez’s response when recently reminded of those achievements was refreshingly honest: ‘I’d love to be able to say, “Yes, I’m much better than I was in 2007 and 2009”, but to be honest, I’m probably not. Age does have an effect, and there have been some injury setbacks. But I think I’ve learned a lot over the past few years, and that I now make better decisions and can perhaps help the team a lot more in different ways than I could previously.’
That is certainly going to be interesting to see. Du Preez has only featured in eight Tests since 2011, but over the past four years no locally-based scrumhalf has been able to take over his mantle. The list of young No 9s who have shown promise but fallen by the wayside makes for sorry reading.
It’s why, in the end, overseas-based Du Preez and Ruan Pienaar remain the Boks' top two scrumhalves heading into the World Cup. Uncapped Rudy Paige is the back-up.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that an in-form scrumhalf general is so often key to the cause of any World Cup-winning side. Just think of the likes of Joost van der Westhuizen, George Gregan and Du Preez.
Can Fourie still be that man? It’s a question that simply can’t be answered with any certainty at this point. And that is cause for some concern.
Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images