Spies back for battle

Pierre Spies has re-entered a rugby landscape vastly different to the one he left, writes RYAN VREDE.

Spies has a problem. A big one. It's conceivable that he will watch the World Cup from the comfort of his couch.

A regular starting Springbok under Jake White and Peter de Villiers, Spies has never been further from that position than he is at present.

While he was sidelined through serious injury, Duane Vermeulen grew into one of the world’s best players. Vermeulen is absolutely central to the Springboks’ success. Without him they are a significantly less potent force. His form and influence show no sign of abating and he continues to defy medical science by performing at a consistently high level despite any adequate break since what seems like forever.

Then there are his deputies, among them Nizaam Carr, who never looked an impostor on the 2014 end-of-year tour.

Taking all this into account, Spies faces a challenge unlike any he has encountered in his international career. At the time of writing the Vodacom Bulls were stuttering along, their pack lacking much of the punch they were renowned for in their pomp, which had contributed in some part to Spies’s relative anonymity. 

Encouragingly for him, while he has lost ground, he hasn’t lost the confidence of coach Heyneke Meyer.

‘Pierre is an incredibly gifted athlete and he has shown over the course of his Springbok career that he is a match-winner,’ Meyer told me in an informal discussion in Cape Town last year. ‘I haven’t really had the chance to work with him in the set-up as closely as I would have wanted to because of his injuries, which is a shame because I truly believe he can give us another dynamic game-breaking option in the forwards, whether that be as a starter or as an impact player.’ 

Meyer, through that offering, established that out of sight isn’t out of mind. I understand his commitment to the player. He mentored Spies from an early age, shifting roles between coach and father figure (Spies’s father passed away when he was a teenager).

In his capacity as Bulls head coach, Meyer converted Spies from a wing to an eighthman with great success and backed him in the position, from which he contributed notably to the Bulls’ three Super Rugby titles.

I also know that Meyer is excited by what Spies could offer as an impact player. Injecting him into contests that are beginning to open up, against opponents who are tiring, could give the Springboks an edge. 

Yet Meyer’s integrity won’t allow him to be charitable towards Spies with regard to Springbok selection. Privately they’ve established this. Spies has a clear understanding of what it will take to break into the squad. And neither is he the kind of man to harbour a sense of entitlement. 

Spies’s focus should be on improving his Super Rugby form. By the time you read this he may well have exhibited the level of strength and consistency that will put his name firmly back in the World Cup debate.

Staying injury-free will aid that cause. Spies doesn’t possess the depth of talent to burn white hot after returning from a long layoff. Few players do. He needs to play consistently, gradually building to his best.

He does boast an appreciable level of mental strength and resilience. He has an unwavering self-belief, the type common in elite-level athletes.

Sitting at a cafe close to Loftus a couple of years ago, Spies told me that he believed himself to be the best No 8 in the game. He qualified that statement by explaining that he believed when he played to his potential, none of his peers were better. This was before Vermeulen had discovered his superhuman gift, before Kieran Read lifted the bar for the game’s No 8s.

I never got the impression Spies had abandoned the humility that marked every one of our previous interactions. He isn’t, and will probably never be, one to consistently make statements of that nature. He was playing very well at the time, the teams he represented were excelling, he had yet to endure the injury setbacks he now has, and he was young and still growing in emotional maturity.

In hindsight, I see these things as combining to allow him to make a statement of that nature. I think he’d be more measured if I posed the same question to him now.

Perhaps my reading of the man is grossly off. Perhaps he would still offer himself as the benchmark eight in the game if I posed the question to him now. If he did, he would be wrong.

But that isn’t the point. It’s a personally-held belief, and a belief born from thinking that is common among most elite-level athletes across all codes. Either way, the final delivery is all that matters.

Spies is a 53-cap Springbok and has played over a century of Super Rugby matches for the Bulls. He is approaching a decade in the professional game. If he is to overcome the challenges that await him, he will have to harness the power of all that experience, add in the physical and technical qualities he possesses, spice it with sustained high-level performance, and hope the cocktail is pleasing to the Springbok selectors’ palate.

– This article first appeared in the April 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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