Fourie du Preez has established himself as the finest player on the planet.
Rugby genius. The concept is not easily defined, and should you arrive at a suitable definition, finding players who meet all the criteria is rare. It’s a relative concept, certainly, but there are attributes which are absolute. Fourie du Preez lists some of those when I ask him what he would define as genius.
‘It’s a player who reads the game and makes the right tactical decision 99% of the time after assessing the situation,’ he begins. ‘That said, you get some sharp decision-makers who don’t have the skills to execute what they see in their mind. Geniuses are able to do both, and their ability is amplified by the fact that they’ve studied their opponents.
‘Then there’s the issue of consistency. To be considered a genius you have to be able to deliver high-quality performances week in and week out against high-quality opposition.’
Du Preez has inadvertently described himself. To fully appreciate his genius you have to consider that he’s played at the height of his powers for most of what has been the most taxing season of his career.
Going into the end-of-year Tests, he had played 1 853 minutes of rugby in 2009 – the equivalent of around 23 matches – against the majority of the world’s elite players and teams. Not once has he looked like an impostor in such illustrious company. In fact, seldom have big-name players looked as ordinary as they have when pitted against the irrepressible Du Preez.
He has, however, omitted a couple of absolutes in search of a proper definition.
Geniuses have an aura about them that penetrates the opposition’s psyche, galvanises their team-mates and drives those men to a level of performance they may not have known possible. They also have the ability to change the course of a game, as Du Preez exhibited in the Super 14 and Currie Cup finals.
There were six decisive moments over the course of those 160 minutes. Du Preez was involved in all of them.
It was his try, birthed from a quick tap, against the Chiefs that signalled the start of the most emphatic performance by a team in a final in recent history. He then followed that up with another five-pointer to take his side into the lead, before threading through the most perfectly weighted grubber for Bryan Habana to score and seal the result.
To underline his aptitude for high-pressure matches, he mesmerised the Cheetahs at Loftus, directing the Bulls’ classic symphony with the skill of a master conductor – the build-up featuring an expertly executed cross-kick which sailed to the unmarked Francois Hougaard, a divine piece of handling to scoop the ball off his boot laces and send Habana away for a try, and the crescendo – a deft, looping kick into vacant space which Habana chased down to virtually assure victory.
‘I’ve seen enough talented players fold in finals or high-pressure games to know the difference between the genuine article and a pretender to genius,’ says former Wallabies, Brumbies and Reds coach Eddie Jones, who worked closely with Du Preez during their preparation for the 2007 World Cup and at the tournament itself.
‘Fourie has no equal as a scrumhalf in world rugby. No one is even remotely close. And although it’s hard to say who the best player on the planet is, because roles differ so greatly from position to position, I think if you were to consider a couple of candidates, you’d have to provide some pretty conclusive and strong arguments if you chose anyone but him.
‘The very best players in the world are those who give you an eight out of 10 performance for 80% of your matches in a season. I’d suggest Fourie is probably higher than that percentage-wise. George Gregan had some sensational seasons in the time I coached him, but he never came close to what Fourie has offered the Bulls and Boks in 2009, especially considering the amount of rugby he’s played and the intensity and pressure of those games. Just unbelievable, mate.’
Du Preez has, at times, looked like he was reading the game in a Matrix-type code, not dissimilar to the manner in which Keanu Reeves’s character in the sci-fi blockbuster did, and he seemed to have the ability to supernaturally elevate his spirit and make tactical decisions based on information attained via an aerial view of the action.
‘It’s definitely been my best season ever,’ says Du Preez, confirming what many astute commentators have acknowledged. ‘The 2007 season was a great one for me personally, but this season I’ve felt like my game has shifted to a different level.
‘I’m more mature now, with none of the insecurities I had in the past, and I know my game, my strengths and weaknesses, inside out. It helps that I’ve been playing in winning teams and with great, experienced players around me.
‘Last year wasn’t particularly memorable for me,’ Du Preez continues, lamenting a season where the Bulls and Springboks were infuriatingly mediocre. ‘I struggled for form at some stages, so I appreciate what it’s like to be back in the groove now.
‘Those things that weren’t going for you when you were struggling, suddenly do. You try things that were failing and they come off. You start reading the game better, seeing spaces in the opponents’ defensive line or areas you can kick in to that aren’t marked. It just all fell into place for me this season.’
Du Preez is less analytical than team-mate Victor Matfield, who studies lineouts with religious devotion. He relies more on experience and instinct. In preparing for matches, he spends the bulk of his time looking at how his opposing scrumhalf defends around the scrum and ruck fringe. The rest, he says, comes naturally.
Jones once told the media that former Wallabies flyhalf Stephen Larkham had the ability to read how a passage of play would unfold two phases ahead, and would be prepared when it did. Du Preez humbly denies that he has such foresight, an assertion some would disagree with, but concedes that his positional sense is the facet of play that he has made the biggest strides in.
‘I play more on feel than I do relying on pre-match analysis,’ Du Preez explains. ‘When I’m out on the field I get a sense of what my opponents are likely to do and try to position myself accordingly.
‘It’s not that hard, we play against the same guys every year,’ he adds, again displaying the now familiar trait of self-deprecation. ‘So I wouldn’t make too much of it. I’m just like any other player, really.’
However, with every touch kick fielded and accurate counter-kick launched, every box kick that is suspended in the air just long enough for the chasers to contest and every punt that rolls into touch in an attacking position, every snipe around the blindside that leaves the opposition bewildered and every zinging or popped pass that finds its intended target, Du Preez’s claim to mere mortality is rejected.
‘He’ll never admit to it, but those of us who work with him know that he is a once-in-a- generation player,’ says Bulls backline coach and former Springbok wing, Pieter Rossouw.
‘There’s nothing you can teach him technically because he’s the complete player, and he’s also so strong mentally. When he isn’t around, the Bulls and Springboks don’t have the same threat. That’s not a criticism of the second-choice players in that position, it’s just that Fourie is a special, special player.’
A special player the Bulls and Springboks have to start contemplating life without. Having won all he can with those teams, Du Preez admits that he is thinking about challenging himself afresh.
There is, of course, no shortage of European suitors wanting to ensure that the next phase of his career plays out in their club’s colours. His contract with the Bulls ends in October 2010, and he hasn’t yet made a decision about whether or not he will continue playing in South Africa. Losing a player of his quality would be the equivalent of losing an organ in the human body. Functioning would be adequate for survival, but you wouldn’t be firing at optimal potency.
‘I have a big decision to make in the next couple of months,’ Du Preez says, driving home the possibility that South African rugby could lose one of the jewels in its crown.
‘I have to weigh up whether I want to have a chance of defending the World Cup in 2011 or whether I should move on. I’ve spent my whole life in Pretoria, next year will be my 10th at the Bulls, and I feel like I have to get out of my comfort zone. I don’t want to be stuck in the same routine for the rest of my career.’
Du Preez, however, rejects the suggestion that his departure would see a dramatic capitulation of his teams.
‘If the succession planning is right I don’t think that would be an issue,’ he argues. ‘Sure, there’ll be a rebuilding period for the Bulls and Boks because I don’t think many of the senior players in those sides will continue to play beyond 2011, at least not in South Africa. But we have some special young players in this country.
‘Francois Hougaard [Du Preez’s understudy at the Bulls] is one of those, and I think he’ll be the Springbok scrumhalf for a long time. There are others like him in different positions. So if we plan well, there’s no reason to think it will all fall apart because we have an abundance of class youngsters.’
Class is a widely available commodity in South Africa. The genius that is Du Preez is a scarce one. Let’s appreciate and celebrate that we’ve seen genius in our generation.
By Ryan Vrede
– This article first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine. The January-February issue goes on sale next week.