Superb when the game is loose, anonymous when it’s tight. Pierre Spies weighs in on the debate.
The Bulls’ No 8, by his own admission, was ordinary in their 2008 campaign, but seems to have rekindled the the form he displayed prior to his illness-enforced eight-month lay-off just before the 2007 World Cup.
However, there continues to be debate around his effectiveness when his tight five is nullified or when the opposition opt for a rigidly structured approach.
Spies’s performance against the Highlanders at the weekend did little to shatter that widely held perception, as, to a lesser extent, did those against the Lions and Stormers.
His detractors’ case was strengthened when recently released statistics from Verusco, a New Zealand-based company who supply video analysis systems to most Super 14 teams, revealed that Spies is the worst tackler of all the South African players – missing 37 tackles in five matches (a figure that would have increased after the Highlanders match). That’s an average of 7.4 per game – a staggering number for a Test player and one who should be dominating at the tackle point given his physical superiority over most opponents.
It is of course not a recent criticism, but Spies’ improved form has inadvertently cast a light on his perceived weaknesses. The 23-year-old has been diplomatic in his response to that line of criticism in the past, but seems to have reached the point where it’s become frustrating.
‘Some people have strong opinions about this and I can’t change those, even though I disagree with them,’ Spies told keo.co.za.
‘I’m not saying I’m flawless when the game is tight and I acknowledge that I’m better when our tight five is dominating, which gives me more space and time to work with. But there are a couple of No 8s like that. Ryan Kankowski [Spies's major competition for the Springbok No 8 berth and South Africa's seventh worst tackler with 25 missed hits] is very similar [when he is granted space and time to work with].
‘I want to get to the point where I’m dominating all types of games. But it’s not a case of me proving critics wrong. No matter how many good performances I deliver there’ll always be those who pick holes in my game. It’s the desire to be a complete player. I’m not there yet but I will get there.’
Former Springbok coach Jake White gave Spies his Test debut in 2006 and maintained faith in him for the majority of his tenure thereafter, despite regularly fielding questions about his reduced potency in tight matches in that period. He echoes Spies’s sentiments and feels critics need to keep perspective when judging him.
‘I know the boy can tackle and that he doesn’t disappear when games are tight,’ White said. ‘It’s easy to find fault with any player if you look hard enough and I guess Pierre’s no different. But he’ll become better as he gets older and more experienced. We have to remember that he’s only 23 and he’s in his third season as a loose forward at Super Rugby and Test level.’
Spies’s aptitude will be tested once more on Friday against a Crusaders side who have been observably more direct without their fulcrum Dan Carter directing affairs, and with a number of key backline players injured.
And it’s not only in the general play that Spies will be under the microscope. The Bulls’ scrum was pressured by the Highlanders, significantly blunting Spies’s threat. Expect the Crusaders to have noted their struggles and attempt to replicate their Kiwi counterparts’ attack.
But there can surely be no better place than Christchurch against the defending champions to attempt to dispel some notions surrounding his perceived flaws.
By Ryan Vrede