Danie Rossouw leaves a legacy of success matched by only a select few in the game, writes RYAN VREDE.
That tackle defined Danie Rossouw’s career. You know it. The tackle. World Cup final. Mark Cueto in for a sure try. Then Rossouw intervened to play a decisive, perhaps the decisive, role in securing the title for the Springboks.
Rossouw’s heroic effort saw him track the ball’s path and chase down the England wing, desperately clutching his legs and dragging him into touch. Just. That action epitomised everything that made Rossouw so valuable to every team he played for – athleticism, unrelenting work ethic, selflessness, astute tactical awareness, determination and superior technique.
That was a rare spotlight moment for a player who has largely existed in the shadows. Those not close to the teams he’s played for underestimate his value, his enormous value. The inner circle and those with a trained eye have always known and appreciated him. He was the catalyst for success, that seemingly insignificant element, without which the desired chemical reaction could not occur. In rugby terms that chemical reaction is victory.
And Rossouw was in the business of winning.
It is no coincidence that his teams were serial winners. Three Currie Cup titles, three Super Rugby titles, two European Cup titles, a French Top 14 title, two Japanese Top League titles, an All Japan Championship, a Tri-Nations title, a World Cup title, and a series win over the British & Irish Lions underlines the point.
What’s more is Rossouw’s contributions to those successes have come in a number of different positions – blindside and openside flank, No 4 and No 5 lock and No 8. He is one of the most valuable players in the game’s history. And he’s ours. So we celebrate him with the gusto he deserves.
‘I remember him coming to the Bulls as a skinny, young kid. But even then I could see he was something special,’ says Heyneke Meyer. Some ridiculously gifted players have passed through Meyer’s hands. Not many would class Rossouw as one of those. The coach disagrees.
‘He was one of the best players I’ve ever coached. He had no weaknesses. None. Zero. Once we put some muscle on him it amplified his value. He was already an incredibly gifted athlete – beautiful hands, great feet, speed to burn, which was a legacy of his days playing fullback as a schoolboy – and then he became physically strong too, and boom.
‘He’d give you everything he had. You never had to worry about that. And irrespective of which position I played him in, I was never concerned he’d let the team down. So you put it to me that Danie was one of the most valuable players in the game’s history? I’d say he was. No question.’
‘He was one of the best players I’ve ever coached. He had no weaknesses. None. Zero' – Heyneke Meyer
Meyer needs no encouragement to speak on this particular subject. He slides up in his chair, loads and shoots: ‘Something else that stood out about Danie is his fierce loyalty to me and the Bulls. A couple of years ago the Sharks made him an offer that would have doubled the salary he was on at the Bulls. He wasn’t starting at the time; I was using him as a replacement for Bakkies Botha and his game time was limited. He told me about the deal and I was honest, saying that I couldn’t offer him more than he was getting either in salary or game time. A couple of days later he said not to worry, he believed in what we were building at the Bulls and wanted to be part of it. He also said he believed he’d become a better player under my coaching. So he stayed and that speaks about the man’s character.’
Victor Matfield joins the praise-singing with a view shaped in the trenches.
‘When he was playing, I felt we could beat most teams,’ the decorated and highly respected lock says. ‘He is so adaptable tactically – equally effective when the game is tight and when it opened up. He is so strong. So strong. I rarely saw him dominated in a hit. He’s also fearless, which, when combined with his ability, makes for the type of player I was happy to call a teammate and not an opponent.’
Rossouw is in every way a throwback to the old days before professionalism. On the surface he cares about three things: his family, rugby and hunting. In that order, although I suspect if he was paid as handsomely for hunting as he was for rugby the placing would have been reversed.
Seemingly, he treats success and failure as the impostors they are – with equal and healthy caution. Evidence of this assertion was seen in his tweet after his second European Cup success with Toulon, which simply said, ‘Befok’, accompanied by an image of him, clutching the sponsor’s product in the change room with his teammates (see page 39). He is perched next to Ali Williams, Steffon and Delon Armitage and Frédéric Michalak, none of whom are easy to like. But Rossouw is and his disarming charm and the brutal but fair manner in which he works means he also counts many opponents, even ones on the receiving end of his, erm, enthusiasm, as friends.
Iconic All Blacks prop and once fierce adversary turned teammate Carl Hayman has become a companion on Rossouw’s hunting trips. Williams is a failed student in Rossouw’s School of Crossbow Hunting, Pierre Spies a still-hopeful graduate of Danie’s College of Fishing, while Matfield and Fourie du Preez have spent many a day losing money to the big guy on the golf course. Everyone loves ‘Dana’. Everyone except vegetarians and animal rights activists, judging by the abuse he takes on social media for his love of hunting. In response, he posts pictures of medium rare steaks to vex them.
Rossouw’s mind remains sharp and willing but his body betrays him. Years of constant abuse have left it battered and reluctant to respond to his will. Indeed, Meyer had an approach to Rossouw rebuffed recently.
‘My body is broken, coach,’ came the 36-year-old’s reply to Meyer’s enquiry as to his interest in resuming his Test career.
He retires having left the field completely spent in 63 Tests and hundreds more provincial, franchise and club games.
There’s nothing left to give. But we couldn’t ask for any more.
ROSSOUW'S ROLL OF HONOUR
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS SERIES
2007, 2009, 2010 (Bulls)
2012-13, 2013-14 (Toulon)
FRENCH TOP 14
JAPANESE TOP LEAGUE
ALL JAPAN CHAMPIONSHIP
2012 (Suntory Sungoliath)
2004, 2006 (shared), 2009
2001 (Blue Bulls)
– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine