Goosen’s attack-minded

Johan Goosen’s return provided the Springboks with more attacking and kicking options, writes JON CARDINELLI.

It was a muggy morning on the Lowveld, and several journalists had gathered on the outer fields of the Mbombela Stadium. As the Springboks concluded their training session, Johan Goosen walked towards the media scrum. Suddenly, the pressmen sprang to life. This was the man they had all come to see.

‘How do you feel about playing for the Boks after nearly two years in the international wilderness?’ asked one scribe. ‘Does it require a mental shift after competing at club level for so long?’ demanded another.

Goosen’s response was bland, inoffensive, and devoid of all passion. ‘That went well,’ one journo joked, as the poker-faced Goosen trudged off in the direction of the team bus.

Four days later in the Rugby Championship Test against Argentina, Goosen delivered a more colourful and meaningful answer to these questions. Tears streamed down his face during the South African national anthem. Over the next 80 minutes, the fullback delivered a potent attacking performance that culminated in a crucial try in the 71st minute. The prodigal son had marked his return to South African rugby in emphatic fashion.

The Springboks’ performance in Nelspruit, as well as the subsequent display in Salta, left a lot to be desired. Goosen’s attacking and kicking efforts, however, elicited praise from those in the know.

Before the start of the Rugby Championship, Bok coach Allister Coetzee was criticised for picking the France-based Goosen ahead of a local player. By the end of the match against Argentina in Salta, it was clear Coetzee had made the right decision.

The fullback has been with Racing 92 since 2014. Having signed a contract extension, he will remain with the Parisian club until 2020. Nevertheless, he should play a key role for the Boks as they build towards the 2019 World Cup.

‘Goosen wasn’t brought back from France just to be a regular player,’ says former Bok wing Breyton Paulse. ‘He was brought back to excel, to give the Boks a bit of magic. You want him to express himself because you know what he can do.

‘The time in France has obviously done him the world of good. He’s matured a great deal, and you can only benefit from playing alongside a player like [former All Blacks flyhalf] Dan Carter at Racing.’

As the stats confirm, Goosen’s performances against Argentina were not without error. What was encouraging to see, though, was that he provided the Boks with more options on attack.

‘The intent is definitely there,’ says Paulse. ‘He’s a courageous player who is not afraid to compete for those high balls and take opponents on at the gainline. As a former player, those are the things you look for and admire.

‘I’d like to see him doing it a lot more. The problem is that the Boks are trying to find their feet. You saw what happened in those two games against Argentina. The Boks were chasing the game and that can limit a player. Hopefully the guys will start to gel over the next few months and we will see Goosen at his best. I’ve seen enough to make the statement that bringing him back to South Africa was absolutely the right move. He’s made a few errors, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed.’

Former Bok fullback André Joubert believes Goosen has made a bright start to the next chapter of his Test career. According to the ‘Rolls-Royce’ of fullbacks, Goosen will only improve in the coming years.

‘He is one of the most exciting talents in world rugby,’ says Joubert. ‘That said, if you are going to talk about attack, you need to consider the backline as a whole and the game plan that has been set out by the coaches. They need to get the best out of him.

‘Attack is not only about ball-carrying these days. Kicking is so important. The All Blacks are a great attacking side, and are very dangerous with ball in hand. On top of that, they use those brilliant grubbers and chip kicks to fracture opposition defences. It’s sad that South African rugby hasn’t got that right yet. A player like Goosen certainly has the ability to attack in that manner. He was born with those skills.’

SA Rugby magazine spoke to Goosen about his goals after Racing won the Top 14 final in June. The versatile backline player confirmed that he hoped to represent the Boks again. At the time, he was disappointed about being left out of the South African squad for the three Tests against Ireland. Even after Pat Lambie was ruled out of the series with a head injury, the Bok management declined to bring Goosen into the mix.

After the Boks’ unconvincing series win against Ireland, it was clear a change in personnel and mindset was needed. Coetzee dropped veteran wing JP Pietersen as well as regular fullback Willie le Roux from his squad. The coach confirmed that Goosen would have the chance to ignite the backline.

Goosen started his career at flyhalf for the Cheetahs. At the age of 20, he was backed by then coach Heyneke Meyer to start for the Boks against Australia and New Zealand in that all-important No 10 position. At that stage, Goosen was being spoken about as South Africa’s answer to Carter and Jonny Wilkinson. Even at a young age, he showed signs of developing into a truly exceptional Test player.

Unfortunately, injuries limited Goosen’s game time with the Boks. He played four Tests in 2012 and just two in 2014. When he was overlooked for the 2015 World Cup squad, many wondered if he would ever wear the Bok jersey again.

His subsequent form for Racing, however, proved impossible to ignore. Goosen featured at flyhalf, centre and fullback over the course of the 2015-16 northern hemisphere season. He held his nerve in the Top 14 final – in front of 99 000 people at the Camp Nou – to kick three long-range penalties and guide Racing to a 29-21 win against Toulon. On that particular occasion, he started at outside centre.

At the start of the Rugby Championship, Coetzee pigeon-holed Goosen as a fullback. The statement was made with the makeup of the Bok squad in mind. Apart from Goosen, the Boks lacked another experienced alternative at No 15. Meanwhile, they had two flyhalf options in Elton Jantjies and Morné Steyn. In future, the Boks will have two more experienced flyhalves in Lambie and Handré Pollard at their disposal.

That said, further injuries may force Coetzee’s hand in the coming months. He may need to recall Le Roux and revisit the idea of starting Goosen at No 10. Indeed, there are many who feel that Goosen is destined to settle at flyhalf.

‘He is good enough to play in any of the key positions,’ says Joubert. ‘He’s up there with the best in the world, as he’s a player who offers you that X factor.

‘It’s a pity Ruan Combrinck was injured in the game in Salta, as I would have liked to see him getting a chance at 15 and Goosen at 10 in the subsequent games. I also think Willie le Roux is not the kind of player you throw away. It’s good to have a left-footed and a right-footed fullback in a squad, as then you can mix and match according to who starts at flyhalf. Willie still has a lot to offer the Boks and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him featuring in the near future.’

The problem for Coetzee is that so few fullbacks in South Africa possess the skills needed to succeed at Test level.

‘I was surprised to see Goosen picked at fullback initially,’ says Paulse. ‘Obviously the coach is looking at local flyhalves first and there aren’t many options at fullback. But I suppose they are taking a long-term view and grooming him at 15, and then using him at 10 when the need arises.’

2 Tries
5 Clean breaks
29 Kicks from hand
226 Metres run
32 Carries

Springbok coach Allister Coetzee has compared Johan Goosen to the All Blacks’ Beauden Barrett. Before the 2016 season, Barrett was a utility player for a New Zealand side spoiled for flyhalf and fullback options (Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Ben Smith, to name three). Coetzee believes Goosen is in the same category, due to his wide range of skills as well as ability to handle pressure.

‘When people watch New Zealand rugby, they look at Beauden Barrett, who can slot in at fullback or flyhalf. Although he’s not necessarily a specialist in one position, he’s proved what he can do,’ said Coetzee.

‘We have a similar type of player in Johan, who is really quick off the mark. He’s got unbelievable running skills and aerial skills that are second to none. He can also kick the ball a mile. So, I’m really happy to have him at No 15 and to see what he can do there.

‘I think we saw in the series against Ireland that we lacked a bit in terms of right-footed kickers. But now we have that, in Johan Goosen and Jesse Kriel, who will add that balance with two left-footed halfbacks [Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies]. It’s good to have so many options now.’

– This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli