Fourie du Preez remains the Springboks’ best option at scrumhalf, writes RYAN VREDE.
Fourie du Preez returned to South Africa from Japan in early February but he isn’t on holiday. He’s working, hard, albeit out of the public eye. His labour is focused. He wants to be excellent in what he says is his last season in a Springbok jersey. He believes they can win the World Cup and is confident of playing a central role in making that happen.
In particular, he looks forward to playing with flyhalf Handré Pollard. That partnership was short-lived – Du Preez’s 2014 Test season ended thanks to a serious ankle injury after two Tests. He is savouring an extended run with the kid wonder.
Du Preez is excited, now, but just six months ago he almost surrendered his ambition. Frustrated at having to sit out for eight weeks he contemplated retirement, he says, but then reconsidered once he caught himself pushing ever harder during rehabilitation.
‘It wasn’t a conscious decision to go that hard at first but I realised I wanted to be a part of the Springboks’ journey in 2015. I wasn’t done. I knew I had more to give. I believe I’m the best scrumhalf available to Heyneke [Meyer]. If I didn’t believe that, if I thought he was doing me a favour because of our relationship, I’d walk away.’
In late May I wrote a piece for SARugbymag.co.za asserting that Du Preez remains the Springboks’ best option at scrumhalf for the 2015 season. I reasoned that neither Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar nor any of Du Preez’s locally-based challengers had done enough to oust him as the incumbent.
I argued that in the context of how tactically versatile the Springboks hope to be, Du Preez’s ability to transition comfortably between the pragmatic and expansive is unmatched.
But the old maxim ‘out of sight, out of mind’ seemed to be operating with notable strength if a large sample of the responses to that piece is to be believed. One consistent line of criticism focused on him coming into the Test season off the back of what is going to be a five-month lay-off. Another was that there are better options available to Meyer. Yet another was that the Japanese league is an inadequate preparation ground for a demanding Test season, one in which winning the game’s most prestigious prize is a priority.
‘When I got back in 2013, I had a lot of confidence going into the games, despite not having played at what the South African rugby public perceive to be a high level for some time,’ Du Preez counters. ‘It was the same in 2014, in those opening Tests against Wales. The way I trained and played in Japan gave me that confidence.
‘I was considering playing a bit of Super Rugby this year but the timing wasn’t good to go back to the Bulls and I was too loyal to them to take up offers from one or two other franchises that approached me. So I settled on following my own training programme that will take me through to the Test season.
‘I’m going back to Japan to play one match before the Boks gather in late June, just to get some match sharpness. People will always have their views. I’m following my convictions about what I think is best.’
Du Preez undersells his contributions to the victories over Wales which opened the 2014 season. Indeed, they were a reminder of his immense value. He was sorely missed in a Rugby Championship campaign in which his deputies struggled for consistency. Not for the first time in his career was his value only truly appreciated in his absence.
Sections of the South African rugby fraternity need another reminder. Meyer doesn’t.
‘Fourie is a class act, even at 33,’ the Springbok coach says. ‘His value extends beyond what he offers you technically and tactically. He has a presence in the change room that lifts his teammates. His presence also unnerves the opposition. We missed him a lot in 2014. Without being disrespectful to other Springbok scrumhalves, who are very talented, when Fourie plays, our chances of winning improve significantly.’
Unprompted, Du Preez tackles the perception that he has become less potent without Super Rugby. He reiterates a point he made in our previous interview on this subject, that the experience of getting out of his comfort zone from a rugby and cultural perspective has made him a better man and, as a by-product, a better player.
‘From a training perspective, to do things differently from what I became used to in the first 12 years of my career was quite refreshing. The training is a lot more focused and purposeful than it is in South Africa [see sidebar] and playing under Eddie Jones [who coached Suntory before becoming head coach of Japan] has been an injection of life for my career,’ he says.
‘In fact, [moving to Japan] extended my Test career because in 2011 I was almost 100% sure I wasn’t going to play for the Boks again. But Eddie improved me as a player, which meant I thought I could help the Boks go forward, so I accepted Heyneke’s offer to return in 2013.
‘Some people in South Africa take the easy route by saying I’m not at the level I should be because I play in a weak league. They have no factual basis for that. Japan has made me better, not worse. I’m fitter and stronger because there is sufficient time for rest, recovery and conditioning. I’m quicker to rucks because of the speed of the game in Japan and that, combined with the technical skills I honed in South Africa, I think, make me a more rounded player than I’ve ever been.
‘Mentally, I’m also more settled. I get to spend lots of time with my family. I’m watching my kids grow up in front of me, not on Skype, like some local players are forced to do because of the hectic schedules. It all adds up to the feeling that I’ve still got a lot to offer the Boks.’
This year he’ll empty the tank in pursuit of his second and the Springboks’ third World Cup title.
‘I’ll end my Test career after the World Cup,’ he says. ‘I’ll probably play one more season in Japan then call it quits altogether in 2016. Right now, the focus is helping the team do well in the Rugby Championship – I want to win it – and the World Cup.
‘If our key players stay injury-free, we have a team to win the World Cup. But so do four or five other teams. It's going to be the toughest World Cup ever because so many teams can go all the way. You need to be good in those first four weeks and then peak in the last three, when you must be the best you’ve been in the four-year cycle between World Cups. And even then it’s not guaranteed you’re going to win it. So it’s a combination of preparation, talent and luck.
‘I’ve felt the sensation of winning it before and I want to feel it again. More than that, I want to play a part in other players experiencing it. I think I could play a big part in making that happen.’
DU PREEZ ON …
‘I had goosebumps watching Handré against the All Blacks at Ellis Park last year. He is a very, very special player. I wouldn’t coach him too much. I’d leave him alone and let him express himself because he is good enough to win you games playing that way. As South Africans, we’re very fortunate to have a player like him. He can become the best in the world.’
‘Technically, he struggled at scrumhalf when asked to play a certain way. When I was at the Bulls, I was very hands-on with him. Even last year when I was injured, I spent a lot of time with him and he responded well. I’m not sure the coaches at the Bulls invested as much time in his development as a scrumhalf as they should have. I don’t know, I’m not there. When you see him on the wing, though, you understand why lots of people rate him more highly there. He is a top wing.’
HOW SOUTH AFRICAN PLAYERS ARE COACHED
‘The problem is multi-faceted. Since 2001, the Bulls have followed almost the same weekly schedule. Two gym sessions; two video sessions; two field sessions, one for attack and one for defence; and the players I’ve played with from other franchises say it’s pretty similar for them. Why is this so? By way of example, the Bulls’ backline would spend two hours a week training first-phase attacking moves and in the game there would only be two first-phase moves that allow you to do what you trained. South African coaches spend a lot of time on things that don’t benefit you to the extent they think on the field. The programmes are too generalised. There needs to be more of a focus on the individual and how improving the individual can benefit the collective. Coaches are too quick to rely on the natural size and skill of our players. If we freshened things up from a coaching perspective, we’d be a far stronger rugby nation.’
LEADING A BALANCED LIFE
‘The thing is, within a coaching schedule like we have, there isn’t enough time for the players to give their families the necessary attention they deserve, and not enough time for younger guys to study, which is crucial for post-rugby life. If we trained smarter and not harder, there’d be a healthier balance. Professionalism in South Africa is an excuse to work from 9am right through to 5pm. In Japan, I’ve trained harder than I ever have in South Africa, but still managed to get the balance right.’
– This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine