Not so super, man

Johan Goosen’s career is a study of why temperament is more important than talent, writes RYAN VREDE in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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I remember my first in-person interview with Johan Goosen clearly, despite it taking place more than seven years ago.

I was a young writer without the requisite emotional intelligence or experience to understand that talent alone counted for very little at rugby’s elite levels. Goosen, then 20, was the most talented flyhalf in the country.

Having watched all the YouTube tributes to the high school prodigy, I’d been caught up in the absurdity of his 60m goal kicks, marvelled at his running game and chalked off an indifferent start to his professional career to a natural adaptation period.

I came into the interview as a super fan and my glowing feature in this magazine reflected that.

When Heyneke Meyer handed him his debut against Australia in Perth, I thought it was the beginning of a long career, one that featured a style of play we’d not seen from a Bok flyhalf since Henry Honiball.

But Goosen has played just 13 Tests, his last in November 2016. Two years ago he conceded that he’ll probably never play another Test, and he’s probably right.

If talent is the lens we look through when assessing his international career, his would be a rugby tragedy. But temperament, not talent, is the defining characteristic of athletes who build long and successful careers at their sport’s highest level.

Indeed, the most successful flyalves of South Africa’s post-isolation era have not been exceptionally talented. They’ve had temperament in truckloads.

Joel Stransky’s composure under pressure united a nation in 1995. Butch James’ mind was focused and sharp, and his heart globe-sized as he guided the Springboks to their second world crown in 2007. Morne Steyn was a match-winner with the boot in their triumph over the British & Irish Lions in 2009. And Handre Pollard, who Goosen pips for natural talent but pales in temperament, steered the Boks to victory at the Japan World Cup in 2019.

Two things prompted me to revisit this subject; the first being a recent interview where Goosen, who is on a reported R26-million contract with Montpellier, laments being away from the family farm in Burgersdorp. He intimates that a return to South Africa is imminent. This doesn’t surprise me.

The interview I reference at the start of this column happened on his day off. Once we’d wrapped up, he jumped in his bakkie and drove nearly three hours to spend what remained of the day on the family farm. He told me he’d have to drive back at 4:30am the next day to make the 8am training session in Bloemfontein. This, he said, was how he spent all his free time.

I was therefore not too surprised when he walked away from a freshly inked, multimillion euro contract with Racing 92 and retired abruptly in 2016 to become a commercial director at a saddle-horse stud farm back home in Bloemfontein. He later reversed the decision, citing (among other things) Montpellier’s outdoor lifestyle appeal, when compared to the densely populated Paris.  

The second catalyst for this column was watching The Last Dance, a documentary series that follows Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls during their final season. It culminates in them winning a sixth NBA championship in eight years. Jordan was a freak insomuch as he possessed supernatural levels of talent and temperament. It was, however, the latter that would define his career. The sheer number of game-winning shots Jordan sunk, many of those to win championships, speaks to the assertion that at sport’s highest levels, being a clutch player demands the mind creates a quiet work space for talent to flourish.

Goosen has enjoyed a good career. He is star in French club rugby and has monetised his talent to the nth degree. I’ve probably projected my own expectations on to him, which ultimately means nothing if he is content with how his career has unfolded. I don’t know how he feels but I’d be surprised if he didn’t, in moments of brutal honesty, think that 13 Test caps were well short of what he should have played, given his talent. Athletes gifted in the way Goosen is, know exactly how good they are. There is an inner voice that reminds them of it daily. It is central to their rise from childhood talents to household names.

But when that self-belief is assaulted, particularly in those who have not suffered any form of setback in their formative years (which was Goosen’s experience), it is experienced as an insurmountable mental obstacle.

Goosen was meant to be our Superman in a Springbok jersey. It turns out it was his kryptonite.

*This article first appeared in our June magazine, which is now on sale

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