Johan Goosen will arrive at the Bulls with the opportunity to revitalise his career, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
Several months after Goosen had suddenly retired, he felt the urge to kick a ball again.
He decided to go somewhere familiar; to a place that had once helped define him, to where his dream had first begun to take shape.
He drove into leafy Grey College, his Bloemfontein alma mater, and began kicking balls on his own.
It wasn’t long before he noticed two spectators, one of whom was armed with a long lens camera. He might have been just 24, but he was street smart enough to know that they weren’t there by accident.
L’Equipe, the famous French sports newspaper, had dispatched a correspondent and a photographer, in South Africa to report on the French tour, to get an exclusive interview with Goosen, whose stay in Europe had ended in mystery and acrimony.
Goosen was having none of it. Furious, he chased them away and that was that.
Except it wasn’t.
The episode reflected just where Goosen’s life was at, with the paparazzi on his tail and the French up in arms about his seeming betrayal, rooted in him walking out on Racing 92 and decamping to South Africa.
The past five years of Goosen’s career have been pock-marked by incident, injury and innuendo; ingredients for chaos, but also, perhaps, mishaps that might have made him stronger, more determined.
It’s from this bubble of controversy that Goosen will step in July when he takes up a contract at the Bulls. At 28, Goosen has much still to offer, which is what Jake White, the director of rugby, is banking on.
Never backward in coming forward, White reckons had he been managed properly, Goosen’s natural talent would have resulted in him earning 100 Test caps (he has 13) and acclaim as a great player
The Bulls are well set with Morne Steyn and Chris Smith as flyhalves, but Goosen offers a potent blend of relative youth, experience and versatility. Like his close friend Frans Steyn, he can play flyhalf, inside and outside centre and fullback, making him more valuable than most.
The big question before his Pretoria arrival will surely be around his state of mind after so many twists and turns. A switched-on, ambitious, clear-headed Goosen will be a lethal acquisition. An uninterested, disengaged Goosen will find it tough.
White has firm views on the player and his tortured path to Pretoria.
‘Let me say first off, he’s an unbelievable talent. I saw him as a schoolboy and knew straight away he would play for South Africa. But club issues, injuries and timings haven’t worked out. I blame some of the people around him down the years. There was bad advice, and he’s carried the can.
‘When I heard he quit, I didn’t believe it. In his time, he could have conceivably played two World Cups – 2019 and 2023 – but it never worked out, in 2019 at least. It’s the right time for us to take him. He’s banged his head enough, but he’s also grown up a lot. He’s married, got kids, plus he’s got unfinished business with South African rugby.’
With White still refining his squad, Goosen fits in as one of the more experienced players he requires. The Bulls have a tremendous herd of young players, but the director of rugby wants to supplement them with several more experienced individuals to ensure a sweet balance.
One of White’s traits is his clear communication with players. If he doesn’t rate you, he says so. If he does, he’ll let you know that too. A spade is a spade with the hard-nosed schoolteacher.
So he’s had the tough conversation with Goosen, telling him he doesn’t have the energy to fight with him every week. He’s also told him he’ll work out a plan so that Goosen can manage his farm free of worries.
‘I won’t play games with him and it won’t be a holiday,’ says White. ‘I want to turn him into a Bok again … that’s my commitment.’
If White can turn miracle maker, it would represent an astonishing change of fortune for Goosen, now with Montpellier, but by all accounts treading water rather than pulling up trees on the Mediterranean.
Prominent French rugby writer Aurelien Bouisset says that when Goosen started with Racing, he was highly rated and impressive.
‘He was the good surprise, nobody was really expecting him to play such an important role when Racing won the Brennus [the French championship] in 2016. He was quick, powerful, had a good boot and an X factor that made him an exciting talent.
‘Then things went bad when he decided to leave Racing in such a strange way. As Racing and Montpellier owners are not what we can call good friends, [Racing owner] Jacky Lorenzetti wouldn’t buy into this “retirement” Goosen told him about.’
His walkout on his Paris club was shrouded in mystery, but it was believed to be based on a convoluted contract that saw the club pay off the debt on his Free State farm.
He was wooed by Montpellier, but the only way he could legally extricate himself from his Racing contract, without it hurting his pocket, was to retire.
Which is what he did. It led to much hostility and unhappiness in France. The South African saddle maker, which is how Goosen was described in the French press, was in bad odour. But he had his farm.
‘I made a mistake. But that’s life,’ he told Midi Olympique. ‘I did not feel good in Paris. I felt like I was choking … I wanted another life, the sun, the space and the nature.’
Two years later, he arrived to take up a contract with Montpellier, a move widely condemned as ‘immoral’. The French club reputedly bought him out of his Racing 92 contract at a cost of €1.5-million (R26.6-million).
Team owner Mohed Altrad is not a popular man, so his pursuit of Goosen only added to the soap opera.
Goosen’s form for Montpellier has waxed and waned and he’s some way off the standard that won him player of the year honours in 2016.
Multiple injuries, including a sprained knee and a stress fracture of the foot, have hobbled his ambitions. He’s doubtless aware that his French sojourn has been less of a free-spirited adventure than he’d hoped.
‘I made some bad decisions,’ he told L’Equipe late last year.
Bouisset isn’t certain that Goosen has come to terms with the many incidents that shaped his career. ‘He never really said the whole truth, nor reflected on the impact on his career.’
‘One wonders if all the efforts made to get him out of his incredible early retirement were really wise,’ noted fellow L’Equipe writer Philippe Pailhories.
The opportunity thus exists for Goosen to revitalise his game and perhaps even atone for his missteps. For all his baggage, he’ll arrive in Pretoria without apologies and without the need for any.
Of course there’s risk involved with a player whose career has been as unorthodox as Goosen’s, but White will judge him purely on what he can contribute to the Bulls. The assumption must be that Goosen still has much good to offer.
Better still, White will be able to create an optimal environment for the playmaker and know exactly which buttons to push to get him firing.
For all his troubles, Goosen is too talented, and too unfulfilled, to simply shuffle off and wonder what might have been.
The Goosen Roller Coaster
July 1992: Goosen is born in Burgersdorp, the Eastern Cape town’s most significant event in 82 years – the British and Irish Lions played NE Districts there in 1910.
2004 and 2005: Represents Border at junior Craven Week.
2008, 2009 and 2010: Represents Free State at Craven Week. In 2010, he is named Player of the Tournament.
2010: Selected for the SA U18 High Performance squad.
2010: Briefly suspended for a doping offence, having tested positive for methylhexaneamine, a stimulant.
2011: Debuts for the Cheetahs.
September 2012: Debuts for South Africa, playing as a reserve against Australia.
September 2012: Starts for South Africa for the first time (his third Test) and helps orchestrate a 31-8 defeat of Australia.
2014: Signs for Racing 92.
2015: Helps Racing to the Top 14 title.
2016: Starts three times at fullback for the Boks.
2016: Is on the bench as the Boks are shocked by Italy.
2016: Plays his 13th and final match for the Boks, who are beaten by Wales in Cardiff.
October 2016: Is named Top 14 Player of the Season ahead of Dan Carter and Josua Tuisova.
December 2016: Announces his shock retirement, aged 24, to work at a stud farm in SA.
2018: Briefly re-joins the Cheetahs for three Pro14 matches.
2018: Controversially signs for Montpellier.
2020: Is hailed by Jonathan Kaplan as the best schoolboy player he ever saw.
2020: Is embroiled in a R9-million claim for damages following a shooting incident in 2017.
2021: Signs for the Bulls.