The Vodacom United Rugby Championship has been brilliant in terms of allowing young talent a chance to consistently play at a high level, develop and impress national selectors. But there has been a beauty in how certain veterans of the game have played such impactful roles ushering in the youth and contributing to their respective teams’ success.
DHL Stormers loose forward Deon Fourie is one such character.
Fourie, at 35 years old, has been at the forefront of a Stormers season in which they have secured a home quarter-final as the South African Shield winner. It has also been the season in which Fourie’s career has come full circle, with the veteran having made his senior debut in Cape Town in 2006.
In the past 16 years, bouncing between hooker, flank and No 8, Fourie played in some great Stormers and Western Province sides, before spending seven years in France where he represented Lyon 91 times and Grenoble 42 times.
His experience and knowledge has shone through in a relatively young Stormers side, and his ability to play hooker and loose forward has given coach John Dobson great comfort going into the playoffs, especially with the squad’s two frontline hookers injured.
Fourie attributes his longevity to not having experienced serious injury problems, which speaks volumes to his conditioning given the combative nature of his role as the team’s turnover king.
Fourie, as a youngster in his debut season, quickly announced himself at the bottom of a ruck as a player who knew his way around those dark alleys. Coaches speak of some players being born in those alleys and others who do everything to avoid being caught up in those alleys.
Fourie is of the former and that is why he has been such a popular selection, regardless of where he has played his rugby.
In a professional sporting climate that is obsessive over age, players like Fourie are proving in the URC that there is such value to be had in backing the experience of older players, granted they are physically primed and still performing. While they may not be around forever, the value of the one or two years that they spend helping a side to playoff positions, and schooling the next generation, is invaluable.
The URC has been breathing life into the last seasons of several older players who have chosen to return to South Africa to complete those rugby journeys that have lasted nearly two decades.
Equally, a guy like Fourie has breathed life into his team and the league, not only through his years of experience but through his undeniable passion for Western Province and the Stormers.
“Coming back now, it is in a very different context to when I left. The Schalk Burgers and Francois Louws aren’t around anymore, but what you do have is a group of very energetic young guys, and ‘Dobbo’ [coach Dobson] is doing a fantastic job of managing this dynamic,” says Fourie. “I am loving the pace of the game in the league and the very different styles of the opposition. I am also loving the energy of the youngsters. When I left the average age was around 26 or 27 and now it sits between 22 and 24, so you have a league full of youngsters where the fitness levels are at a high.”
Fourie at 35 has exuded the energy and hunger of Fourie at 20, and players like him, across the franchises, have just added to the quality of the URC as a whole.
ROAD TO THE PLAYOFFS: STORMERS (2ND)
The Stormers won 12 matches and drew two to finish on 61 log points, good for second on the Vodacom United Rugby Championship standings and first in the South African Shield.
It is a remarkable finish for a team that started the season with one win from five matches, the last of which was a 37-19 defeat at home by the Emirates Lions in December.
That match gave way to a break of almost eight weeks and apparently time off was all the Stormers required.
At the resumption of the league, the Stormers travelled to fortress Loftus Versfeld where they edged the Vodacom Bulls 30-26, next followed a 22-22 draw with the Cell C Sharks in Durban, victory over their coastal rivals in a Cape Town rematch and finally sweet revenge in a 32-10 romp against the Lions at Emirates Airline Park.
The striking turnaround in form suffered a setback in Galway when the Stormers conceded two yellow cards in a 19-17 loss to Connacht, but they responded to the bitter taste of defeat with a renewed sense of purpose at home that sparked a run of seven consecutive victories before the Cape side beat the Scarlets 26-21 in Llanelli to end the regular season and book a quarter-final at Cape Town Stadium.
Manie Libbok was the top point-scorer in the URC with a haul of 148 points. The flyhalf converted 32 of the Stormers’ 60 tries, kicked 23 penalties and scored three tries. Libbok’s biggest input was 14 points in a 24-10 win at the Dragons, but his passes and kicks were crucial in Leolin Zas scoring the most tries in the league with wing teammate Seabelo Senatla close behind.
The Stormers were in sixth place when they hosted second-place Ulster in round 14, and the Irish team was riding the momentum of seven successive wins.
The Ulster pack included former Stormers stalwart Duane Vermeulen while the hosts channelled much of their attack through his successor in the No 8 jersey, Evan Roos.
The apprehension about Ulster seemed to have been misplaced when the hosts bolted into an early 14-0 lead and Libbok kicked two penalties to take the Stormers 20-13 clear at half time. However, the touring team showed their class in the second half. Precise kicks put the Stormers on the back foot, limiting them to three points as they were pinned to their 22 where they tackled for their lives and held on for a telling 23-20 win.
Quarter-final vs Edinburgh at Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town (4 June)