Jouba’s Bok ambition

In the last issue of SA Rugby magazine, Marius Joubert spoke of his desire to wear the green and gold again this season. Chris Hewitt reports.

Marius Joubert is tired of reading that he’s a player who is not passionate about his province, his region and his country. Marius Joubert is tired of reading that he’s a liability defensively.

‘I’m a specialist outside centre, I’ve played there my whole career and I know the position,’ he says. ‘I know the running lines and I know where I should be on defence. Everyone misses the odd tackle, and I certainly have, but not because of what some people say is my inability to understand defence patterns. That’s rubbish. There is an opinion that I would be better suited to the wing, and while I’ll play anywhere the coach wants me to, I certainly won’t be volunteering. I believe I have a lot to offer the Stormers and the Boks as a No 13, but talk is pretty meaningless in a game like ours. I know I will get my opportunity and I know I have no rights to anything.

‘All that remains is for me to show why I played 17 consecutive Tests for the Boks. It has been a difficult period, but that is behind me now, and as I have done in the past, I aim to emerge from this setback stronger than I ever was before.’

Joubert talks the way he plays. There is passion in the conversation but little structure, little method. He has a message, but it is often convoluted and needs to be nurtured. Honest insights intertwine with stock answers. There’s contradiction, bred by a year in which he learnt that you never arrive in Test rugby, you only leave.
His knowledge of that fact is a window to the introspection that has consumed him for a year. For the first time Joubert is not just up against the jersey, on a mission to play to his potential that would surely result in a recall. For the first time he is up against someone else. For the first time Joubert is no longer the frontrunner, but rather the contender.

Jaque Fourie is the spectre that now haunts Joubert, and like two boxers with identical strengths and weaknesses, take the big breath before the plunge that will see them bash it out throughout the year for the rights as first-choice No 13.
There can be no contending the fact that Fourie took his opportunity, excelling outside the mercurial Jean de Villiers in the Mandela Test at Ellis Park and subsequently, until the last game in Paris where his try from first phase provided the highlight in a gloomy display.

Fourie is the man in possession. Equally, though, it is no secret that in coach Jake White’s mind Fourie isn’t quite there yet.

The harsh immediacy of the descent from first-choice to fringe player is a journey Joubert is familiar with, and in the dark days he has endured there is a
speck of solace: he knows how quickly things change.

‘I realise I’m at a crossroads in my career. I’ve got a lot to prove in the Super 14 if I hope to regain my standing with the Boks. Jaque Fourie is first-choice No 13 now, and that motivates me. It’s why I’m up at the crack of dawn swimming 30 lengths. It’s why I’ve really put it on the line this year. I want nothing more than to play for the Boks again, and I see no reason why I should give up on that dream. I’m just as hungry, just as motivated as I’ve ever been. Maybe more so, actually. A lot of people have written me off and I have a lot of people to prove wrong. I believe I have my edge back.’

Joubert’s fighting talk reveals a man stung, a man motivated, but also a man who knows that displacing Fourie represents a great challenge. The ‘edge’ he mentions is a recurring theme, with the implication that such a simple word has sat closer to him than his skin during this difficult period.

In his mind, that ‘edge’ is what deserted him in 2005 and what he needs to regain his status in the upcoming months.

There is confidence, but also fear. His demeanour reflects what still remains his final act in the game’s ultimate arena, a poor performance in Sydney where the Boks succumbed 30-12, their most comprehensive loss of the season.

‘Jake called Jaco [van der Westhuyzen], De Wet [Barry] and me in for a chat soon after the Mandela Challenge Test against the Wallabies in Sydney,’ Joubert recalls of the days following the fixture. ‘I knew when we sat down that it wasn’t good news. Jake is never one to mince his words, and he said that he felt we had become complacent. He said that Jean [de Villiers], Jaque [Fourie] and André [Pretorius] were going to be given a go as a result. That upset me. We may not have been playing as well as we could have, but watch the Sydney tape. Whenever Wendell Sailor came into either De Wet’s or my channel, we were smashing him back. There was no complacency. You don’t get selected for the Springboks and become complacent. It just doesn’t happen.’

Such is the crass nature of professional sport that less than a year before Joubert left All Black captain Tana Umaga face down in the turf, the defining moment of a performance that included three tries and worldwide acclaim. It was the brightest moment in a 30 Test career. He was heralded as one of the IRB’s five Player
of the Year nominees in 2004. For 17 consecutive Tests, White entrusted
him jersey 13. And in White’s eyes, for 16 consecutive Tests Joubert rewarded
the faith.

Now he returned to Ellis Park for the return leg of the Mandela Challenge still wearing green, but this time the blazer had replaced the jersey. The Springbok emblem still covered his heart, but the feelings within could not have been
more contrasting.

‘Look, there’s been a lot of dark moments in the last year. Some of the hardest followed that Sydney Test and during the Tri-Nations. During warm-ups before the Tests I’d always be the extra back that warmed up in case there was a last-minute injury, so my pre-match routine was exactly the same as before when I was starting. Except now, when the adrenaline was flowing and I’d be all pumped up, I had to go take a shower and slap on a blazer. Then take my seat in the stands. That was very painful.’

Like the boyfriend who is relegated unwillingly to friend, he could still take her out for dinner, but he wasn’t the guy taking her home. And like all who are spurned, Joubert does not believe his punishment befits the crime.

‘I actually didn’t think I played that badly in Sydney. But that’s South African rugby. I thought I was at least a five or a six out of 10, but the press saw it differently and they tore into me. The thing about South African rugby is that people believe what they read, and so there were a lot of negative comments being made. It was a snowball effect that began in the Super 12. After things started going wrong at the Stormers, people began looking for someone to blame each week, and almost every time it was me.

‘I wasn’t playing that well in the Super 12, but I do think I have been judged unfairly. People seem to forget that rugby is a team game, and that no-one plays in isolation. At the Stormers we were struggling as a unit throughout the Super 12, and as the Boks we struggled as a unit in Sydney. Picking out individuals to blame wasn’t very fair.’

The perception of being isolated by the press is ironic since the one criticism consistent throughout Joubert’s career is his tendency to play in isolation.

Successive coaches marvel at the acceleration and natural ability of a world-class footballer, but cringe at his reluctance to offload and failure to read and implement defensive patterns.

Joubert has always disputed the criticism. In his mind, making the hit makes a good defensive centre. Defensive coaches at home and abroad believe in maintaining composure. Joubert is a phenomenal athlete, but consensus is that alone does not make the best technical centre in the world.

‘The criticism of my defence as an individual was a little harsh. People didn’t realise, but with the Stormers last year, we were alternating between a drift and up-and-in defensive system regularly. Personally, I believe that was a mistake
and that you can’t use more than one. What was happening was that there was just communication breakdown everywhere. De Wet would press and I would drift, or De Wet would drift and I would press. Even watching some of those games now that is very clear. There was a lot of confusion and that led to a lot of slipped tackles.’

There is no disguising that Joubert stumbles along the fine line between indignation and sulking. Just like Justin Marshall and Carlos Spencer, quality players frustrated by obstacles threatening to thwart their claims to greatness.

Joubert’s opportunity for redemption lies ahead, although the past still haunts him. How did a dream 2004, in which he provided its defining moment, become the nightmare that saw him dropped midway through the Stormers’ stuttering Super 12 challenge last year?

‘That’s a difficult one … but I’ll answer ’cos I think a lot of people still wonder what happened there. Before the first game with the Sharks, I remember feeling for the first time that we were underdone mentally. That week we had so many PR commitments, I actually think there were three in the days leading up to the opening game. I’m not blaming anyone for anything, but let’s just say there were a lot of distractions heading into the Super 12. Mentally, I and a lot of the other guys were not where we should have been.

‘A lot has been said about the fact that I was burnt out, but I felt really good going in to the Super 12. Physically I felt fresh. I know I played 33 games the year before [the most of any South African, translating into 188 hours flying, 149 178km travelled and 159 nights in hotels] but it wasn’t like I was out on my feet from day one. I think what happened is as things started badly, fatigue started creeping in, and I felt there was an edge missing.

‘I was doing a lot of good things on the field but maybe was a split-second slower to accelerate or anticipate than the year before. At that level, that edge is what
separates good from great players, and because of a combination of a whole lot
of factors, I had lost mine.’

Joubert’s return to fitness coincides with Stormers coach Kobus van der
Merwe shifting captain Barry to outside centre to accommodate playmaker De Villiers at No 12. With De Villiers perfectly comfortable one closer to the touchline as well, Joubert knows that he will have to win back black jersey 13 before he can consider the green version.

‘It’s difficult that I didn’t have the opportunity to prove my worth later last year, but it only means I’m much more motivated to prove something this year in the Super 14 and then, hopefully, with the Boks. I’ve got this burning desire to prove all those who wrote me off wrong. There’s a shitload of that, hey. I’m not finished, and I’ll show those who think otherwise. I’m 26, not 46, and there’s a lot of rugby left in me.’

- The April issue of SA Rugby magazine is on sale Monday, 27 March.