Francois Louw returned to the Springboks in a time of need, and has added leadership and experience to a team in transition, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
On a blustery afternoon in Bloemfontein in September, Francois Louw sat pitchside at a Springbok practice session as drizzle swept across the training field at Shimla Park. It was a far cry from where he would have expected to be at the start of the Rugby Championship, with the Boks backing a group of locally-based loose forwards while, over in England, Louw got stuck into pre-season training and recovery work with his beloved club Bath.
At the time, Louw had set his sights on making a meaningful contribution to Bath’s English Premiership campaign, having been entrusted with the captaincy at a club where he has become something of a folk hero since making the move to The Rec in 2011. For Louw, it was his first proper off-season in six years, with the industrious flank having remained an integral member of the Bok squad ever since earning the first of his 54 Test caps back in June 2010.
Unbeknown to many, Louw suffered cartilage damage to his shoulder during last year’s Rugby Championship, but soldiered on until the end of a competition in which he started every game. Louw then sustained a hamstring injury in the Boks’ final match of the tournament, which ruled him out of action for two months. Once he had recovered, he returned to feature for Bath until the end of their season, before finally deciding to undergo corrective surgery to repair the damage to his shoulder.
‘I had been struggling with the shoulder injury for the whole of last season and I was just hanging in there,’ he revealed earlier this year. ‘I made the decision to have it repaired so that I could start this season fully fit, go hard at it and not struggle with a niggle throughout.’
However, the surgery meant Louw was unavailable for the Springboks’ June series against France, while it became increasingly apparent that SA Rugby was continuing to move towards a policy of limiting the selection of overseas-based players. At 32, Louw could have been forgiven for realigning his ambitions to focus on club before country under the assumption that perhaps his best Bok days were behind him.
To think this, though, would be to underestimate the character and commitment of the man. Louw’s loyalties to Bath may run deep, but playing for the Boks remains his pride and joy. And so, when the Springboks came knocking in the wake of a humiliating, heaviest-ever 57-0 loss to the All Blacks in Albany, Louw immediately answered the call, jumping on a plane to Bloemfontein 24 hours after captaining Bath in an important clash against the Newcastle Falcons.
Settling back into the national camp before the Boks’ penultimate Rugby Championship clash, against the Wallabies, Louw sat down with a small contingent of media at the team hotel, where he opened up about being pulled in different directions by club and country.
‘The reality is that I am torn between the two. My club means a lot to me over there; it is the first time I’ve really been able to spend a pre-season with them and contribute to the start of a season,’ he acknowledged, but then came the kicker: ‘The highlight for me, though, is playing for the Springboks, and that will always come first. Thankfully, my club has always been great in allowing me to represent the Boks. There’s no bitterness … the fact they’ve allowed me to go, in such a positive manner, makes a big difference to me. So I’m here with a happy heart.’
Just a few days later, Louw started his 48th Test for the Springboks, delivering an industrious all-round effort that saw him make five carries, beat two defenders and complete 10 tackles. When he was replaced in the 65th minute, a vociferous crowd at the Free State Stadium took a moment to roundly applaud his efforts.
Louw has never been a player of glitz and glamour, but his contributions and commitment to the Bok cause for the better part of the past decade have been undeniably immense. He is a leader who others look up to, and it’s the reason why Allister Coetzee didn’t hesitate to overlook his age and locality to recall the Bath-based stalwart.
‘Francois came through a magnificent pre-season and he’s stronger than ever before,’ the Bok coach said. ‘He plays towards the ball and ensures we contest on the ground, and can prevent teams from feeding off quick ball. Francois is also a leader, and he’s been here and done it before. He’s one of those players who really wants to play for South Africa. He’s the type of guy who will phone [to chat] after a Test, and he’s excited about the new culture in the team. He finds out about those small things that are really important, and it’s good to see where the loyalties lie for overseas-based players. I can say without any fear that he still wants to be a Springbok.’
Indeed, that enduring desire to contribute to the national cause has never diminished for Louw. When he left South Africa to join Bath in 2011, he readily acknowledged that it could jeopardise his Test future, but the former Stormers star was just as strong in his conviction that the time was right to test himself in a new environment.
‘Moving to Bath was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make,’ he told SA Rugby magazine back in 2013. ‘But it had to be done. It’s when you challenge yourself, when you take yourself out of your comfort zone, that you really learn something. When you’re in unfamiliar territory, when you’re under pressure, that’s when you have to respond and show your true colours.’
During his early years at Bath, Louw was fully aware of the philosophy of then Bok coach Heyneke Meyer, who made it clear that he would not pick overseas-based players unless they were clearly superior to counterparts plying their trade in South Africa. However, almost single-handedly, Louw altered Meyer’s view on the subject.
‘I can see what a huge influence Francois has had on the team,’ the former Bok coach said after his first stint working with Louw. ‘You only get a sense of a player once you’ve seen what he can bring to the table.’
Fully aware that he’d have to consistently perform at the peak of his powers to get his foot in the Bok door, Louw’s personal and professional progression has been quite remarkable over the past six years. Besides establishing himself as a talismanic figure at Bath, Louw went on to feature in 33 Tests during Meyer’s tenure (starting all but one), and he remained firmly in Coetzee’s plans – starting in all nine Tests last year before injury struck.
Although Louw did feature prominently for the Boks last season, there were those who questioned whether his impact was sufficient to justify selection ahead of a prominent local player such as Jaco Kriel. As it turned out, Kriel and Siya Kolisi dovetailed to great effect over the first three Tests of the Rugby Championship, with talented youngster Jean-Luc du Preez providing cover off the bench. It raised the question whether there would be a way back for Louw, and yet he was the immediate go-to man when Kriel was laid low with a serious shoulder injury in September.
‘I think the way my Test career has gone, going overseas in 2011 as a non-contracted Springbok, so to speak, you pretty much have to take it as it comes,’ Louw reflects. ‘Every opportunity is a great opportunity, and my philosophy has always been to play as well as possible overseas. You have to ensure you don’t give them a reason not to select you.’
Louw’s inclusion may not necessarily be in keeping with one of the Boks’ foremost selection criteria to consider players with a long-term plan in mind, but he remains a player who Coetzee believes can still add immense value to a largely inexperienced side.
‘Flo is a true professional; the way he plays towards the ball and secures possession is so important,’ Coetzee said. ‘I’m just so pleased with his game knowledge and experience that he brings, and he’s assisting the leaders massively. He’s really added value since returning to the camp.’
With Kriel in line to return to action only next year after undergoing shoulder surgery, Louw looks set to have a crucial role to play as the Boks head towards a challenging end-of-year tour against Ireland, France, Italy and Wales. For Louw, though, every minute in the green and gold is simply one to be cherished.
‘Policies do change, and I’m aware that there does seem to be an emphasis to choose locally-based players, but all I can focus on is myself and my personal game. I’m just so excited to still be involved with the Boks.’
LOUW ON …
THE BOKS’ 57-0 LOSS TO THE ALL BLACKS IN ALBANY
‘There’s no doubt that it was very disappointing, and even though I wasn’t involved in that game, I still felt partly responsible because I’ve been involved with the Boks every year since 2010, and played many Tests against the All Blacks. The guys were clearly hurting after that, but that’s a good thing; it means they care and it’s the type of culture you want in a side when guys are willing to do whatever they can to make things right. They recognise the responsibility that’s bestowed upon them as Springboks representing our country.’
HOW TO REDUCE THE GAP BETWEEN THE BOKS AND ALL BLACKS
‘It’s our biggest rivalry; there’s something special about that game, and at no stage, for the sake of world rugby, do you want to lose that special battle against the All Blacks. It’s very important for us to get back to a level playing field, to be competitive and to hopefully win again. We always want to match them in every encounter, and there’s a lot of pressure for us to do that. Only time will tell if we get there, but I believe things are being put in place for us to get back to where the Boks should be.’
FELLOW FLANKS JACO KRIEL AND SIYA KOLISI
‘Jaco is very good at the breakdown when he decides to have a go. He enjoys ball-carrying just as much, though, and getting involved among the backs. He’s also solid on defence, which is an area I think all loose forwards relish. He isn’t a man who goes backwards all that often in the tackle. Siya has had a great season. He’s an explosive player, exciting on attack and he also gets the job done on defence.’
– This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine