Fourie du Preez enhanced his legacy with several outstanding performances at the 2015 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Eddie Jones may well have the gift of prophecy. In early 2012, he told SA Rugby magazine that Fourie du Preez was only beginning to understand the depth of his talent, and that the much-improved scrumhalf would be back in the Test fold before long.
A year later, Du Preez made his return to the Springbok side in the 73-13 win against Argentina at Soccer City. The scrumhalf turned in some influential performances for South Africa in the two home Tests against Australia and New Zealand. On the subsequent end-of-year tour, Du Preez set up Jaque Fourie for a match-clinching try in the clash against Wales in Cardiff.
Jones was at it again when I caught up with him at the recent World Cup in England. The Japan coach couldn’t resist a light-hearted ‘told you so’. He went on to detail why Du Preez would keep the Boks’ World Cup dream alive.
‘I couldn’t believe our luck when he wasn’t picked to start against us at the World Cup,’ said Jones. ‘Fourie is the best decision-making halfback I’ve ever seen. His ability to control the game and find weaknesses in the opposition defence is first class.
‘It’s like having a coach on the field. If you watch the NFL, the quarterbacks run the team. The coach might be feeding them information, but they tell everyone on the field what to do. Fourie is like that.’
Jones’s comments were made in the lead-up to the World Cup quarter-final between South Africa and Wales. The prophecy would come to pass when Du Preez managed the game expertly, and then contributed with a 75th-minute try that was ultimately the difference in a 23-19 victory.
After the game, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer hailed Du Preez as a tactical genius. Bok assistant coach Johann van Graan borrowed a quote from the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to describe the performance: ‘Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.’
Du Preez has long possessed a confidence in his ability to influence a contest. This confidence has been shaped by the numerous successes he has enjoyed with the Bulls, Boks, and more recently, Suntory Sungoliath in Japan.
He refuses to think of himself as a genius, though. Instead, Du Preez refers to those moments of magic as well as his many match-shaping tactical decisions as ‘positive contributions’.
He feels he made a series of positive contributions over the course of the 2015 World Cup. The Boks didn’t finish the campaign with the Webb Ellis Cup, but Du Preez believes he could not have contributed more. Decisions to return in 2013 and more recently after a serious knee injury in 2015 were vindicated. He will retire from international rugby, for good this time, knowing he did the right thing.
There was a time in the lead-up to the global tournament when he doubted he would be back to his best. That knee injury set him back mentally as well as physically. Du Preez started to wonder if he could fulfil his role and influence big matches.
‘I’ve always said I only wanted to be in the team if I could make a difference,’ he says. ’Before the tournament, I was contemplating retirement. I would think about it 10 times a day. I would have to fight that idea in my mind.
‘My friends and family never stopped believing in me. Heyneke wanted me there, even when I was not feeling confident about making it. Two days before the World Cup squad was announced, I was ready to tell Heyneke not to select me. Then my brother flew down to see me at the training camp in Durban. I also received a lot of messages from people, including some top South African business people. They all said the same thing: if the coach believes in me and wants me, why should I be so arrogant to turn him down.’
It was hoped Du Preez would enjoy a gradual reintroduction to the team via the bench, and then make his first start in the final pool match against the USA.
However, after the 34-32 defeat to Japan, Meyer was forced to pick his strongest possible combination for the remaining matches. The Boks couldn’t afford to lose another pool game if they hoped to qualify for the play-offs.
Du Preez had to make a significant mental shift. He played through intense physical pain in those fixtures. Meyer revealed that Du Preez was suffering from back problems during that period. Nevertheless, the scrumhalf, who also took the captaincy reins when Jean de Villiers and Victor Matfield were unavailable, proved equal to the challenge.
‘I feel I made a contribution to the team. We were in a better position to progress in the tournament with me in the side than we could have been without me. That’s not being arrogant. I feel I made a contribution on and off the field during the campaign. I’m also proud of the way I fought my way through the mental battle to play again. I gave everything, and that’s all you can ask of yourself.’
Du Preez’s playing career will come to an end when his contract with Suntory expires in January 2016. The scrumhalf says he would never have been in a position to return to Test rugby in 2013 or feature at the 2015 World Cup if not for a rejuvenating stint in Japan.
‘It’s ironic that we lost to Japan,’ he says. ‘Five or six of the coaches [including Jones] on that management team worked with me at Suntory. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have played at the 2015 World Cup. I owe them a lot. The way they managed my body, in terms of conditioning and injuries, was outstanding. They worked me hard during the season, but there was also enough time to relax and spend some time away from the game.
‘In South Africa, players aren’t managed properly,’ Du Preez adds. ‘During my first year in Japan, I started to think about how far I could have gone in my career if I was managed in the right way.’
Did Japan play a role in shaping him into the tactical genius he is today? While he baulks at the description, Du Preez agrees that the stint in the Far East was crucial to his development.
‘It’s a very nice compliment, but I’m no genius. If I had to describe the way I’ve played, a lot of it has to do with experience. I’ve seen how to change the flow of the contest during the game and what the team needs to do to win games. People always talk about a Plan B or a Plan C, but it’s more about having a game plan that you can change during the contest. Adapt by attacking down a different channel, or kick behind them into space.
‘I’ve been fortunate that people have continued to back me throughout my career. I’ve never had a premeditated plan forced upon me. I respect the coaches for that. I’ve been allowed to do my own thing, and I’ve always done what I’ve felt is best for the team, on and off the field.
‘I’ve bumped a few heads with people because for me it comes down to what a team needs to do to get the result on the weekend. That’s just the way it is. As you get older, you see what’s working and the reason you’re winning. It’s about sticking to that.
‘After I met Eddie, I realised the game is always changing, so you have to adapt all the time. After 10 years in the Bulls’ system, to go to Japan and learn there are different and better ways to do things, was an eye-opener. It made me the player I am today.’
And for that, South African rugby should be grateful. While the recent World Cup didn’t culminate in a title for the Boks, it did witness Du Preez overcoming several challenges to regain his best form and add to his legacy.
DU PREEZ ON HIS SUCCESSOR
‘I hope coaches don’t make the same mistakes they made in the past. Whenever I was injured, they tried to get the next guy to play exactly like me. In future, they should decide on what’s best for that player and his particular skills. In terms of scrumhalf talent, South Africa has a few options. Rudy Paige is a very underrated player, Faf de Klerk has been playing good rugby, and even the youngster Ivan van Zyl at the Bulls could get a look-in before long. I didn’t watch much of the 2015 Currie Cup, so I didn’t see how Francois Hougaard fared. He’s one of the most talented players I’ve seen. I’m not sure about his plans [regarding the decision to focus on scrumhalf or wing], but if he can work on a few technical things, he can be an asset at No 9.’
– This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine