Johan Goosen will continue to play the game his way, writes JON CARDINELLI.
‘I won’t change,’ Johan Goosen tells me when asked about his ambitions for the 2014 season and how he can once again make that Springbok No 10 jersey his own. ‘I was picked for a specific reason, for the way I played [in 2012], and the message from the Bok coach remains the same: “Play your natural game.”’
The statement is similar to one made by fullback Willie le Roux at the start of the 2013 Test season. Le Roux was brought into the Bok fold and told to express himself. While he enjoyed immediate success, it soon became evident that improvements were required in other areas of his game. It’s not that Le Roux was forced to change his game, but rather to add to it.
It was a mutually beneficial arrangement in that Le Roux’s selection allowed the Boks to add something new to their arsenal. Heyneke Meyer had recognised Le Roux as a potential catalyst for an attack that needed to raise its standards in 2013. In achieving this objective, the Boks would become an all-round threat.
Back in 2012, the identification process regarding Goosen as a game-changer had been much the same. Goosen repaid Meyer’s faith by bringing something new to the Boks’ attack and, like Le Roux, Goosen boasted a quality that was in short supply this side of the Indian Ocean. It’s not hard to understand why Meyer would value such unpredictability, or why he would consider Le Roux and Goosen as important to his 2015 World Cup plans.
Meyer first trusted the then 20-year-old to start against the Wallabies in the 2012 Rugby Championship. Goosen produced a dazzling display that vindicated the selection, exhibiting skills and vision typically the reserve of the more audacious Australasians. It was on that heady night at Loftus Versfeld that Goosen provided some substance to Meyer’s claim that the kid had the potential to become one of the great No 10s.
Injuries have prevented Goosen from realising this destiny, or indeed adding to an already impressive skill set. A shoulder injury sidelined him for much of that 2012 season, cutting short what was shaping to be an outstanding debut in the Super Rugby tournament. Prior to that blow, Goosen was not only one of the most dangerous attacking flyhalves in the competition, but the leading goal-kicker with a record of 48 from 56 attempts. These are the feats that most forget when a bright young thing breaks down and disappears from the scene.
Goosen produced a dazzling display that vindicated the selection, exhibiting skills and vision typically the reserve of the more audacious Australasians
A knee injury in late 2012 stalled his progress and ruled him out of the end-of-year tour to Europe. In early 2013, Goosen tore knee ligaments during Super Rugby. This time, surgery would preclude him from the Boks’ first nine Tests. Goosen suffered a further setback upon his return in October by overexerting himself during a kicking session. This would render him a passenger on the subsequent tour to Wales, Scotland and France.
In the pubs and on social media, arguments were made for Morné Steyn and Pat Lambie as permanent holders of the No 10 jersey. As far as many of the fans were concerned, Goosen was out of sight and thus out of mind.
But Meyer remained a believer in Goosen’s game-changing potential, and still feels the youngster could have a crucial role to play for the Boks in 2014 and 2015. This is why Goosen toured with the Boks last November, to be a part of the squad even though he could not contribute on the field of play, to learn from the more seasoned players and to witness the testing conditions of the northern hemisphere first-hand.
‘Make no mistake, I was the youngster in that equation,’ he says of his educational interchanges with Steyn, Lambie and Fourie du Preez. ‘I was all ears, and in that environment, you are all working towards a common goal.’
And how about when you’re competing for the same position in 2014?
‘Look, I’m a competitive guy,’ he says, leaving me to fill in the blanks. Goosen may be keen to learn, but he won’t be content to ride the bench this season.
Steyn was the best flyhalf in the world in 2013, although this statement needs qualifying. Steyn was the best in the absence of All Blacks No 10 Dan Carter, who struggled with his own injuries over the course of the season, and in the absence of Goosen, the Boks’ first-choice pivot.
Steyn’s recent achievements should be celebrated, and it’s a foregone conclusion that he will travel with the Boks to the World Cup in 2015. What’s less certain is what sort of role he will play at that tournament. Meyer knows what he has in Steyn: an excellent tactician and a match-winning goal-kicker. Lambie has been less convincing with regard to his game management, and while the Sharks pivot will work hard to alter this perception over the next few months of Super Rugby, it’s likely the race for the No 10 jersey, now and in the lead-up to the World Cup in England, will be between Steyn and Goosen.
A fit Goosen will challenge the status quo, for his attacking talents are coupled with an ability to bisect the uprights, even from within his own half. All that remains for the youngster to do is improve his kicking for field position, and then we really are moving into complete package territory.
The Boks improved significantly in 2013, with Le Roux proving the key to their resurgent attack. A similar statement could be made at the end of 2014, with Goosen collecting the plaudits for his role in the Boks’ progression, and possibly for their rise to No 1 in the world rankings.
GOOSEN ON …
NOT PLAYING FOR THE BOKS IN 2013
‘It was a disappointing year in the sense that I didn’t play any Test rugby, but I was privileged enough to tour Europe in November [although he would not play due to a knee injury]. It was a great experience to sit with guys like Morné Steyn and Pat Lambie and learn a thing or two.’
THE CHEETAHS’ RESURGENCE
‘Our defence was excellent last year and, as history will show, the best defensive sides advance to the play-offs. I felt our biggest improvement was in our kicking game. That made a big difference in terms of our success in making the knockouts. The standards have been set and we will be looking to maintain them this season.’
HIS LOVE FOR HORSES
‘While I was injured last year, I had to keep myself occupied. At the suggestion of my kicking coach, Bertus Pretorius, I spent a lot of time up at a farm in Bloemfontein riding and grooming horses. I also did a show in Parys [right], not showjumping as such, but more three gait [walk, trot, and gallop].’
– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine