Spies’s cognitive evolution

Pierre Spies on his return to form, steroid allegations and his quest to be the best No 8 in the world.

sar_145_webOver the course of our conversation Pierre Spies speaks openly about a range of interesting topics – the pain of missing the 2007 World Cup due to a rare blood disease and how religion helped him stave off depression in that period, life as a newlywed and the benefits of not having to drop his wife off at home after a night out, Schalk Burger’s explosiveness in Test matches despite his laid-back attitude to training, and the won’t-go-away rumours of steriod use – none of which capture the attention more than a simple response to a simple question.

‘Who is the best No 8 in world rugby?’ I ask. I fully expect him to rattle off some boring bullshit like: ‘That’s tough. Ryan Kankowski is an unbelievable player, and that bloke from Wales, whatshisname? Powell? Ja, Andy Powell, that boy can play a bit. And the Irishman, Jamie Heaslip, he’s coming through nicely. Oh ja, and Rodney So’oialo …’

Instead, I’m met with a thoughtful gaze before the most unexpected response. ‘That player is still in the making. It’s me.’

‘Wait a minute, you’re breaking protocol here,’ I say. ‘You’re supposed to sing the praises of the first half-decent players who spring to mind. So, I’ll ask again for fear of misquoting you: who is the best No 8 in world rugby?’

‘Look, I’m not going to make excuses for having confidence in my ability,’ Spies fires back. ‘If you look at the guys out there, not much separates them. I’d like to think I have that extra bit that sets me apart. I know it’ll be perceived as arrogance, like: “Listen to this guy talking himself up. He needs to learn his place.” That’s the way we are as humans isn’t it? We’re encouraged to aspire to be the greatest, then shot down when we do. But it’s not arrogance. I know my limitations and strengths and I’d like to believe that I can be the best in the world.’

I’m incredulous by now, stunned at what I’m hearing, but completely overjoyed to be listening to a player spitting unbridled truths.

‘I know I have a long way to go,’ he says. ‘But I want to get to the point where coaches, players and the public think about the best No 8s in the game and my name is at the forefront of their minds.’

We’ll discuss the physical and technical evolution of Pierre Spies at length, but from the outset there’s no denying that a cognitive evolution has been at the heart of his return to something resembling his best form.

This is my sixth Spies interview in four years. We’ve spoken extensively about playing on the wing in his rookie Super Rugby season, the death of his father, becoming a Springbok, a nightmarish debut Test and how that was the catalyst for his transition from man-child to man, an outstanding 2007 Super 14 campaign which culminated in him kneeling down on the King’s Park turf thanking God, who he communes with regularly, and his decision to specialise at eighthman.

But this is the first time I encounter this Spies. He has progressed beyond the self-effacing kid whose offerings were often a hybrid of the mundane and clichéd. There’s a self-belief that was missing or concealed in his formative years. A self-belief that allows him to confidently share his vision of being the best No 8 in the world.

Evolution in the world’s elite players is triggered by an evolution in their mindset. The body is at the complete mercy of the mind and since the end of the 2008 season Spies’s mind has been barking orders at his body with the intensity and relentlessness of a commanding officer in the US Marine Corps.

My previous encounters with Spies mean I’m well aware of how physically imposing he is. I’m no expert on conditioning, but to my mind he had reached his physical ceiling prior to the 2007 World Cup, so I’m fully expecting a man mountain to come striding through the doors of a cafe close to Loftus, where we’ve agreed to meet, but wholly unprepared for what I am about to encounter.

I interviewed Spies in Cape Town just before news of his illness broke, and then it seemed the Boks’ kit manager would have to put in an order for custom-made apparel. No professional sportsman, I thought, could get more muscular than that. At least not naturally. But we’ll delve into that nagging issue in a minute.

Yet Spies is bigger and even more imposing than he was 18 months ago. He looks like a lab experiment who had spent that period doing nothing more than being intravenously pumped with protein and lifting weights the size of a five-year-old. My hand disappears in his as we greet and I catch myself measuring my thigh and wondering if it’s bigger than his bicep. Brutal honesty leads me to the conclusion that it is, in fact, not.

I’ll throw some stats your way to underline the majesty of the beast who has just declined a meal and a Coke, preferring mineral water instead. ‘I’ll eat later,’ he says. ‘What? A baby rhino?’ I wonder. Spies power cleans 135kg. He dead lifts 240kg. He bench presses 165kg. Only mildly impressed? Wait, here are some more. He is able to do pull-ups with a 50kg weight between his legs. He can launch his 108kg body 1.4m onto a raised platform, sprints for 835m before slowing on a repeated sprint-ability test and has a body-fat percentage of 6.5.

‘Pierre has been blessed with amazing genes and has maximised those,’ Bulls conditioning coach Basil Carzis says. ‘As humans we don’t really know what our full physical potential is. We think we’re pushing the limits but the reality is that we’re not even close most of the time. Pierre refuses to die wondering.

‘Mediocrity doesn’t sit well with him. In the gym he pushes himself to lift the most, jump the highest and run the fastest. We have competitions between teams in the gym and you’re feeling pretty confident if Pierre is on your side. Physically he’s well above the norm. I’ve heard the term freak used to describe him and that’s probably accurate.’

But there’s a nagging thought in my mind: What if this freak is a drug cheat?

Since the modern era of drug testing began at the Pan Am Games in ‘83 I’ve seen more elite athletes banned for the use of performance-enhancing substances than I care to remember. I recall sitting transfixed as US sprinter Marion Jones took gold at the Sydney Olympics 100m final in 2000, wondering who on earth would ever be as quick, and I watched juiced-up baseballer Barry Bonds hit his 654th career home run at Yankee Stadium, craning my neck to see the ball land in the car park outside. Gods among mere mortals, I thought. Floyd Landis, Ben Johnson, countless swimmers, weightlifters, cyclists and sprinters … drug cheats the lot of them.

Everything inside me wants to believe that Spies is different. I want to believe that true athletic phenoms, ones with no intruders in their bloodstream, still walk the earth.   He speaks candidly about the rumours which have dogged him throughout his senior career and, rightly or wrongly, I’m sold.

‘What can I do about those rumours? Nothing,’ he says with a resigned tone. ‘I can’t shape what people think. But those people who make those sorts of allegations aren’t there with me in the gym when everyone else has gone home. They don’t see what I eat, the lengths I go to to look after my body. They’re not there when my mates are going partying and I turn down the invite because I know it will affect the way I train. They’re not there. They don’t see what sacrifices I make.’

OK, let’s establish something: this is not an article hailing the arrival of a Messiah. Spies is flawed and doesn’t at any stage attempt to plaster over the cracks in his game. At 23 it would, of course, be grossly unfair to expect him to be flawless, as it would at 24 or even 25.

Yet such is his extraordinary talent that we continue to judge him by an exaggerated standard. It’s partly his own doing. How dare he raise our expectations of him with performances like he delivered against England at Loftus in 2007, or more recently, in the Super 14? Silly boy. How dare he give us glimpses of heaven then facilitate our return to a reality that pales in comparison.

‘I set a high standard for myself but at times it seems like I have to make 15 linebreaks, 100 tackles and score five tries carrying four defenders on my back across the tryline,’ Spies laments. ‘I want to be a player who dominates matches because I don’t think I do yet. It’ll take time but I will get there.’

Heyneke Meyer is the authority on Spies. Before he resigned as the Bulls’ director of rugby in 2007 he’d been considerably more than Spies’s coach. He was and remains a father figure and confidant.

‘He’s been phenomenal recently – really, really good – but we haven’t seen the best of Pierre yet, not even close, and won’t for a couple of years to come,’ Meyer says. ‘He was great in 2007 but mentally his illness would have slowed his development. He’s showing glimpses of his best form again, but it’s important to keep in mind everything he’s been through and the fact that he’s only 23.

‘Physically he’s superb and in this regard is unmatched by any No 8 in world rugby. He doesn’t have all the technical skills of a great No 8 yet, but whenever he gets his hands on the ball he has an explosive quality that you just can’t coach. Give him a year where he stays injury free and he’ll become the best No 8 in the world.’

No analysis of Spies would be complete without the insights of former Bok coach Jake White, who watched Spies being buried alive on debut (the 49-0 hammering by the Wallabies in Brisbane in 2006) and then saw him kick the casket lid open, dust away the soil, and stride purposefully into the rest of his Test career.

‘People are talking about him like they did when he arrived on the scene in 2006,’ White says. ‘I think Pierre is back to where he was when he was playing his best rugby in 2007. The second try he scored against the Blues [in the Super 14] was a replica of the one he scored against England in 2007 at Loftus where he busted through four tackles. It was sensational and gave me goosebumps.

‘But we have to remember that he still needs to mature as a player. He’s so big and strong we forget how young he actually is. People see him as something that he’ll be one day, but isn’t yet. He’ll get mentally stronger and that will bring about improvements across the board. It’s not that he disappears in tight games as is the perception, it’s that he’s not as mentally tough as he will be when he’s 26, 27, 28. He’ll learn the shortcuts and when he does, performances like the ones against England and the Blues will become the norm.

‘He has all the attributes to become the best No 8 the world has ever seen.’

By Ryan Vrede

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