Francois Louw’s experience of northern hemisphere conditions with Bath will benefit the Springboks at the World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
In the coming months, Francois Louw will have the chance to put his unique rugby education to work. Louw has spent the past four seasons with English club Bath; four years studying the tempo and nuances of the European game. It’s a tenure that’s served to improve his skills, and his expertise in northern conditions will certainly improve the Springboks’ chances of winning the World Cup in England this October.
Over the past four years, Louw has become one of the most influential and respected loose forwards in Europe. In 2015, the openside flanker featured prominently in Bath’s surge to the Premiership final. The club from England’s west country may have gone down in the decider, but there was some consolation for Louw, who was named in the Premiership Team of the Season.
The accolade is significant if one remembers the dark and uncertain times of late 2014 when Louw was incapacitated by a neck injury. He sustained the injury in the Rugby Championship Test against New Zealand in Wellington, and was forced to miss the rest of the Boks’ season. It was a cruel blow for a player who was starting to show why he is rated as one of the best flankers on the planet. And it took no small measure of mental strength for Louw to fight his way back to fitness, and then to form during the latter stages of Bath’s domestic campaign.
‘That injury was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to deal with,’ Louw remembers. ‘At one stage, I was very apprehensive about returning to rugby and getting back into the thick of things. Sure, there were times when I thought about how I might not make it to the World Cup. But to be honest, I was more concerned about the seriousness of the injury. At the end of the day, your life is more important than a game.
‘Fortunately, I was in good hands and the surgery went well. There were some tough moments, but my family and wife, especially, helped me pull through. Thanks to the staff at Bath, my rehab went well, and slowly I was able to build myself up again.’
Louw has been good for Bath in 2015, but the Boks will need him to be operating at optimum level by the time the World Cup commences. As Bok forwards coach Johann van Graan explains, a fit and firing Francois Louw will give South Africa the edge in the most important area of the game: the breakdown.
‘I remember when I was a coach at the Bulls back in 2010, and we were playing against the Stormers in the Super 14 final in Soweto,’ Van Graan says. ‘Flo was playing for the Stormers. I remember telling someone that Flo was a fine player, and probably in the prime of his career. But I was wrong about that. He’s continued to grow stronger over the years.
‘Nowadays, he’s held in the highest regard around the world. His decision-making at the breakdown is nothing short of brilliant, and if he’s not the best openside flanker in world rugby, he’s certainly in the top two.
‘Flo has taken the role of an opensider to another level,’ Van Graan continues. ‘People might see an opensider as an out-and-out ball stealer, but he is much more than that. He’s one of the most vital guys in the team. He’s tasked with stealing the ball on defence, but he’s also got to be the first guy to clean at the attacking breakdown. While Flo is not the quickest runner in the team, he is the fastest in terms of his reaction speed. When he sees something, say a tackle or a maul, his speed and decision-making in getting there to make the big play is definitely the best out of anyone in the team.’
Then we have to consider what Louw offers in other areas. He has been a reliable lineout jumper for Bath this season, and is considered a key cog in the Boks’ set piece.
‘He’s also improved to the point where he can give us an option at the kick-offs,’ adds Van Graan. ‘His ball-carrying has been a highlight; he creates linebreaks and often looks for the offload. Whenever he’s at the back of the maul he seems to make the best decision; you don’t see him dying with the ball or going backwards. So, yes, he’s right up there in most departments. He’s very good at effecting breakdown turnovers, but he makes big contributions in other areas too.
‘Flo is a strong individual contributor and a leader at the breakdown. He does the pre-match analysis, and he communicates to the players regarding decision-making in this area. On match day, he relays the information to the guys regarding the referee’s interpretations. His feel for the game is as good as it gets.’
Heyneke Meyer shares Van Graan’s sentiments regarding Louw’s value to the side. The Bok coach has also spoken about Louw’s experience of playing in England, and how that knowledge has proved invaluable whenever the Boks have battled in northern hemisphere conditions.
Van Graan unpacks what it means to understand the conditions as well as the referee’s management of the breakdown contest in that part of the world.
‘The ruck is allowed to develop, there’s more leeway to compete in this area. And from what we’ve seen, Flo has shown he can adapt. As I mentioned, he knows exactly when to compete for the ball, and when to hang back. The stats also tell a story regarding his accuracy. In his last seven Tests, he hasn’t conceded a penalty at the breakdown. To have that in a team, just in terms of your defensive breakdowns, is a big advantage.
‘Another big positive about having overseas-based players in the mix is that some of them play their club rugby alongside Test players from other nations,’ Van Graan continues. ‘So when the Boks play these teams overseas, you have an insight into how their players play. It’s invaluable information for us coaches, who are not exposed to European rugby.’
While the traditionalists argue the Bok team must be comprised of players based in South Africa, the reality is that many of the best players ply their trade abroad. Through his selections and his many statements on the matter, Meyer has confirmed the best will play, regardless of geographical location.
And yet, despite his patent value to the Boks as a player, leader, and somebody who has an intimate understanding of trends and conditions in the northern hemisphere, Louw isn’t about to take his position for granted.
‘I had to fight my way back into Bok contention [in 2012], so I cherish every opportunity I get to wear that jersey,’ he says. ‘To be involved in a World Cup is special, the pinnacle of any player’s career. I also look at a guy like [Bok captain] Jean de Villiers, who has had his own fight against injury, and bad luck with World Cups. It makes you realise it can be taken away from you very fast.’
LOUW ON …
‘We got ourselves into great positions in the European Champions Cup and English Premiership. While it was disappointing not to finish off in those knockout matches, there have been a number of encouraging signs. We had a three-year plan in terms of the way we wanted to evolve our playing style. We finally started to pull it off this season.’
FACING HIS TEAMMATES AT BATH
‘George Ford, Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph were excellent for Bath this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see all three of them lining up at 10, 12 and 13 for England at the World Cup later this year. It’s a very dangerous combination.’
THE WORLD CUP VIBE
‘There are quite a few international players at Bath, and at the start of the season we committed to focusing on the club and its goals. Now that the European season is done, though, we can allow ourselves to get excited about the World Cup. It’s been creeping up, building slowly over the past few months in England. It’s an amazing country that has been very good to me and my family over the past four years. I’m sure it’s going to be a spectacular tournament.’
‘I’ve committed to Bath for two more years. The Stormers really helped and guided me through the early years of my professional career, and I will never forget that. I left Cape Town because I wanted to experience something new, to take myself out of my comfort zone. It was a big change in terms of the culture, and I also got a chance to work with some different coaches and players from around the world. Bath deserve a lot of credit for helping me take my game forward. I still miss South Africa, but my time in Bath has been special.’
– This article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine