Johan Goosen has shone for Racing 92 this season after a frustrating start to his French stint, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
A new year and a new addition to the Goosen household as Johan and his wife welcomed their first child into the world. It’s a measure of the 23-year-old’s composure that he was happy to chat with SA Rugby magazine on the eve of his baby’s birth.
‘It’s due tomorrow but I guess it could arrive today,’ Goosen says, chuckling.
The wee one didn’t show up prematurely so dad was able to reflect on what has been a turbulent year in his life.
The last time Goosen talked to this magazine was in the European autumn of 2014, just a couple of months after his arrival at Racing 92. There was a sense that the former Cheetahs flyhalf was finding the transition a challenge, not helped by the fact he was understudy to Jonny Sexton. The Irishman is a fine player but his two years at Racing weren’t a success and many in France felt that last season he should have been axed to make way for Goosen. He wasn’t, and the South African made just eight starts in the Top 14. Then, at the end of the season, backs coach Laurent Labit launched a stinging attack on Goosen, declaring: ‘His contract runs for another two years, but he knows he’ll have to change his attitude. If not, there’s a good chance he won’t be here for the third year of his contract. You expect a player of his age to be more serious about things … you have expectations of a professional player. He’ll have to pull up his socks if he wants to play.’
It was a crass attack by Labit, particularly as it was he who kept faith with Sexton despite the fact he was so ineffectual. He’s since admitted Sexton’s time at Racing was a ‘failure’ and perhaps if he was honest he would agree he didn’t give Goosen the chances he deserved.
So far there have been no such criticisms this season, but then why would there be when Goosen is playing so well? Now at fullback, he had started six league games for Racing at the time of writing (he was out for a couple of weeks with a shoulder injury), his performances an influential factor in their rise to the summit of the Top 14 at the start of 2016, a position they last occupied in 2011.
Reflecting on last season’s struggles, Goosen admits it was a frustrating period.
‘Sexton is a world-class player, but I needed an opportunity to play and this season they’ve given me that. I think I’ve proved them wrong.’
As for Labit’s rant, Goosen says it came out of the blue, especially when the coach accused him of skipping French language classes.
‘That was a surprise,’ he explains. ‘My wife and I had private lessons at home and he didn’t know that. But all that was sorted out and I’m doing better this year with my French.’
Goosen married his wife, Aletia, in February 2015 and she’s loving the Parisian life as much as her husband is enjoying his second season at Racing.
‘I’m playing, that’s the main difference,’ he says. ‘I’m starting at 15 regularly and I’m enjoying it. At fullback you’ve got more time on your hands in attack and that suits me. I love the space, the chance to use my feet and to counter-attack. Obviously it’s a little more difficult with the defence. Defence is easy when you’re at 10 – just go with the system – but at 15 you’ve got to decide whether to come up to the line or stay at the back.’
As for the obligatory question about playing with Dan Carter, Goosen says the Kiwi made his presence clear from the outset.
‘In his first week here, Dan spoke to the guys in English – François van der Merwe translated – and he said the training wasn’t up to standard. I think every guy lifted a notch because we have so much respect for him.’
But Goosen is quick to add it’s not just Carter who has made a difference to Racing this season. The arrival of a couple of other Kiwis, Chris Masoe and Joe Rokocoko, has also helped give the squad ‘a great vibe’.
As proof of the fact, Goosen says he’s weighing up whether to extend his Racing contract. There have been rumours linking him with the Stormers, and he also revealed that the day before our interview, he’d received a proposal from Japan.
‘I’m really happy here and maybe I’m going to sign on until 2021,’ he says. ‘Nothing is finalised – we’re still talking about that – and of course I want to play for the Boks, but I also want to be happy and I’m happy here now. I want to cement my place in the team.’
The Top 14 is taking a break during the Six Nations, and Goosen draws a parallel between South Africa and the England and France squads, who are also embarking on a new era with a new coach.
‘The Boks have to start afresh,’ he says. ‘We need a different style, a different game plan. We have got a lot of young talented players who can be creative, but if you play a kicking game every Saturday it can be quite boring.’
Goosen’s life will be anything but boring now that he’s a dad. But he should be able to take it all in his stride. As he’s shown in moving to France, he’s nothing if not adaptable.
– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine