Goosen’s top effort in France

Johan Goosen’s performances for Racing 92 this past season are worth shouting about, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.

When SA Rugby magazine sat down with Johan Goosen in January this year, the point was made that should Racing 92 reach the final of the Top 14 it would mean a trip to the Camp Nou. Exciting, hey? Not really. Not for Goosen, who cheerfully admitted he wasn’t into football and to him the home of Barcelona was just another sports stadium.

Well, Racing did make it to the Camp Nou, so what does the Saffa think now?

‘The soccer vibe was awesome,’ says Goosen, his voice betraying signs of weariness at the end of a 10-month French season. ‘We were in the Barcelona dressing room, which was amazing. It had a jacuzzi! It was a very good match and to be there in front of 99,000 people is something I’ll probably never experience again.’

Exhausted Goosen may be, but elated, too, after 14-man Racing defied the odds to beat Toulon and win their first Top 14 title for 26 years. Cue several days of celebrations and official functions before Goosen, his wife and baby were finally able to board a plane and return to South Africa for a well-earned holiday. 

This time 12 months ago Goosen had come home for a break unsure of what the future held. Racing’s fiery backs coach, Laurent Labit, had just launched a scathing attack on the former Cheetahs flyhalf, warning: ‘His contract still runs for 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 a third year of his contract … He’ll have to pull up his socks if he wants to play.’

Well, he pulled up his socks all right, and Labit was true to his word, starting Goosen in 15 league matches compared to eight in the 2014-15 season.

‘I’m happy with my season,’ reflects Goosen. ‘We won the Top 14 trophy, played in the Champions Cup final and I’ve played most of the games, whether at 10, 13 or 15. But above all I’m happy for the team. Everyone has made it easy for me.’

In Goosen’s view he’s never played better than he has in the past few months.

‘I trained really hard this time last year when I was in South Africa, so it might be because of that,’ he says.

The same applies to his goal-kicking. He knocked over three long-range penalties in Racing’s 29-21 victory over Toulon, nine points in a season’s haul of 125 in all competitions. But ask him if he’s benefited from the tutelage of Racing assistant coach Ronan O’Gara and flyhalf Dan Carter (2 681 Test points between them) and Goosen shakes his head.

‘No, O’Gara is the defence coach so it’s not really part of his job,’ he explains. ‘He talks to me before games but I just do what I did back in South Africa. It’s my own focus.’

That’s the thing with Goosen. Off the pitch this personable young man appears so laid-back as to be horizontal. On it, however, he’s all energy, aggression and focus.

Your correspondent was perched high up in the Camp Nou for the Top 14 final, the perfect vantage point behind the posts to keep players under surveillance. When scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud was sent off after 18 minutes for upending Matt Giteau, no one in the Racing side rose to the challenge quite like Goosen. He was ostensibly still at 13, but with wing Juan Imhoff required to stand in at scrumhalf, the South African played like a sweeper along the back three positions.

‘You can train to play [with 14 men] for a yellow, but not really a red after 20 minutes,’ says Goosen. ‘When it happened I was like, “OK, so we’ve got 60 minutes to play, we might as well enjoy ourselves and see what happens”. I tried to be everywhere.

‘But there was a lot of motivation for me because I know Maxime very well; he’s a good friend, and before the game he had told me how much he wanted to win, how he’d dreamed about it, so to see him go off the field was tough.’

The Racing squad didn’t leave the Camp Nou until the wee hours, with many of the players then heading to the beach to continue the party. Not Goosen. He returned to the hotel with his wife and baby. He became a father at the start of the year and is loving every minute of it. It’s altered his perspective on life, and perhaps eased some of the pain at his continued omission from the Springbok squad. He laughs sardonically when asked about the Boks, saying he was waiting for this question. And so?

‘They never picked me, simple as that. They sent me an email before they announced the squad asking if I was available. I said yes and that I wanted to play for the Boks. After Pat Lambie got injured, I thought they would pick me, but they didn’t.’

Goosen, who signed a new deal with Racing that will keep him in Paris until 2020, admits he was ‘disappointed’ to be overlooked.

‘So, yeah, I don’t know if I’m really available any more for the Springboks,’ he adds. ‘I’ve got to look after the club now as they’ve looked after me.’

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

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Simon Borchardt