After returning from injury, Heinrich Brüssow wasted no time in underlining his standing as one of the world’s pre-eminent openside flanks, writes RYAN VREDE.
It took just 160 minutes for Brüssow to remind us of his immense class. Having missed the start of the Super Rugby season through injury (he tore a toe ligament playing for Japanese Top League club NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), Brüssow returned in round 10 and set about stifling the Sharks’ attack, which had been among the most effective in the tournament. The Cheetahs lost 19-8, but Brüssow’s impact was plain to see. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to suggest that scoreline would have looked less flattering had it not been for the 27-year-old’s potent breakdown play.
A week later he was at it again, only this time his efforts were rewarded in the form of an emphatic victory over the Stormers. There could be no question – Brüssow was central to the Cheetahs’ success. He effected four turnovers (to put that into context, the average in Super Rugby over the past season and a half has been 1.25 per game) and slowed the ruck recycle numerous times.
The Stormers’ struggles to cross the whitewash are well documented, but Brüssow reduced their attacking game to a mess, forcing cavalier play that sought to explore the wider channels. That approach failed miserably. Having refused to succumb, despite the pounding he took from the Stormers’ ruck cleaners when the Cape side were playing more directly, he showed an omnipresent trait in continuing to torment them when the play broke down closer to the touchline.
It was an immense display of openside play, the kind Brüssow has made his trademark. The type that will continue to keep him at the forefront of the selection debate come Test season.
I recall watching him practise before the Springboks’ first Test against the British & Irish Lions in 2009. I vividly remember fixing my focus on him for the bulk of a free-play session (for which Brüssow was on the defensive side) and being struck by what seemed to be a man who’d mastered his craft.
If you watched closely enough you could see Brüssow’s mind ticking over, his eyes trained on the flow of the ball, assessing the formation of attacking players and making educated guesses as to where the move could potentially break down. Then it was his time. Only, Brüssow often opted out of contesting for the ball, not because his speed to the breakdown had betrayed him, but because he had learned to pick his moments. What good was it, he would later explain to me, if he was cleaned out in a bid to slow or turn over possession?
‘The speed of the game at the highest levels would mean I’d be out of play for two, maybe three phases thereafter,’ he said. ‘And the more phases there are, the better my chance of exploiting the breakdown to my team’s benefit. When I was younger I wanted to attack every ruck, but I realised, through coaching and experience, that this wasn’t possible. I’d be wasting my energy and failing at my primary role for the team.’
Brüssow starred in the first Test in Durban, eliciting the most glowing praise from the foreign press, among them some of the most skilled, experienced and accomplished rugby writers in the world. He’d progress to be one of the main contributors to the Springboks’ series victory.
A long and successful Test career beckoned. Nobody would have predicted then that five years on he would have earned just 20 caps, with only an outside chance of Springbok selection.
Being sidelined for most of the 2012 season undermined his bid to convince Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, who’d been installed that year, of his merits. Meyer later made his position on Brüssow clear when he said he required more of his openside flank than proficiency on the deck. Francois Louw, he argued, offered the total package. Louw has been outstanding for the Springboks under Meyer, with few questioning his instalment as the incumbent. However, Brüssow’s value as an impact player has been the argument pushed by those sympathetic to his cause. And there are many. That view would have been reinforced once again with his masterclass against the Sharks and Stormers.
What happened in the weeks following those fixtures would have either strengthened or weakened his case. But Brüssow’s class is well known and has been exhibited against the best teams in the game. His form for the Cheetahs should inform Bok selection choices, not dictate it, as it is incredibly hard for an openside in a struggling team – like this season’s Cheetahs – to shine, given how rarely they dominate the gainline battle. Besides, it is clear he is not a liability in facets of play beyond his breakdown work. Certainly, he doesn’t defend and carry with the power of those ahead of him in the pecking order, but there is hardly a massive gulf when comparing those men to Brüssow.
Having had a long professional association with Meyer, I can venture an educated guess that he would want to leave as little to chance as possible, and Brüssow, while appreciated for his skills, represents too much of a gamble.
This debate will continue to gain momentum as the Test season nears, but for now we celebrate the observable difference his return to the Cheetahs has made for them. Lest we forget, the Sharks had averaged two tries per game, but against a Brüssow-inspired Cheetahs they were reduced to one, a desperate 71st-minute effort. Then his hustling at the breakdown against the Stormers created numerous broken-field opportunities, some of which culminated in tries.
Before Brüssow’s return, the Cheetahs had conceded an average of 4.3 tries per match. That figure dropped significantly thereafter. It is no coincidence.
That’s the Brüssow effect.
BRÜSSOW ON JAPAN
‘I enjoyed my first season there; it was a refreshing change after being in South Africa for so many years. I didn’t quite know what to expect in terms of the standard but I was pleasantly surprised. There are some very good players and coaches involved and you can already see their influence in raising the standard of the Top League. It’s not as physical as in South Africa, but it’s definitely quicker and that means you have to adapt your game accordingly, especially as an openside flank.’
– This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine