Joker in the pack

Jaque Fourie’s optimistic outlook has allowed him to shrug off life’s disappointments.

‘Life is lekker’. It’s a philosophy that gets Jaque Fourie through the tough times, and it’s the power of positive thinking that makes him grateful for every minute he’s on the rugby field. Fourie is many things to many people: the best centre on the planet; the smartest defensive player in world rugby; one of the sport’s finest finishers with 28 Test tries to his name; and of course, the team jester.

In the IRB dictionary, you’d find all of the above under the entry Jaque Fourie.

‘I don’t see it as my role to keep morale high or anything like that,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine with an impish grin. ‘It’s just who I am. Life is lekker, and we’re blessed to have this opportunity to do what we love. I love to make people laugh, I’m a positive person and I love spreading that positivity around. I’ve never been into stand-up comedy or anything like that; I’m actually very shy around people I don’t know. When I’m with my friends and team-mates, I suppose I allow myself to get a bit crazy. I guess that positive vibe tends to rub off.’

For someone to fully appreciate the depth of Fourie’s optimistic and unwavering faith in his own ability, they need to understand that it’s been a tumultuous two years for the 26-year-old. There have been the euphoric highs of a series victory over the British & Irish Lions and the long-awaited claiming of the Tri-Nations title, but there’ve also been the grating lows of an acrimonious court battle with the Golden Lions and his ongoing struggle with injuries. It also took an injury to Adi Jacobs and the departure of his good mate Jean de Villiers to Dublin for him to reclaim his starting position, and yet, his attitude has remained constant throughout.

In 2008, a string of injuries prevented Fourie from re-entering the Bok startingfold. Jacobs, a Peter de Villiers favourite,took his opportunity and emerged as one of the star performers on South Africa’s end-of-year tour to the United Kingdom. Jacobs also started at No 13 in two of the three Tests against the Lions until his own injury problems cost him a place in the Tri-Nations. Like Jacobs, Fourie took his chance, and resumed his world-beating partnership with Jean de Villiers.

The former Stormers captain is currently playing for Irish club Munster and was supposedly ineligible for national selection, which is why Jacobs shifted to inside centre for the Boks’ recent tour of Europe, yet De Villiers was recalled when Jacobs got injured. Fourie told SA Rugby magazine in early 2009 that he wanted his No 13 jersey back, and stresses now that patience was a necessary virtue.

‘I’ve never thought of it as winning back my position, it was more a case of getting back to my best form. I’ve always welcomed the pressure that   comes with competing for a starting position. It’s healthy for a team, and it ensures you don’t just sit on your arse and wait for on-field opportunities to come your way. It’s always easier to get into the Test team than it is to stay there.

‘Adi and I are both professional players capable of playing different positions. Adi did well on defence in the Test against France, I think the real issue was our attack. We couldn’t get on to the front foot because our scrum struggled and we were beaten at the breakdowns. Our partnership has potential.’

De Villiers and Fourie are recognised globally as Test rugby’s best centre pairing, even though their respective injuries often prevented them from starting together in major tournaments. The 2009 Tri-Nations was a clear example of why they are so celebrated, with De Villiers’s organisational strengths complementing Fourie’s line-cutting knack. Fourie should be frustrated with De Villiers’s decision to move to Ireland just when they had rediscovered that match-altering synergy, but he believes it’s something De Villiers needed to do in order to take his skills to the next level.

‘That was his decision and I have no problem with it. In early 2009, I was in talks with French club Clermont because I felt I needed a change of scenery. It’ll be good for Jean to experience a different culture and type of rugby. We all saw what the trip to Wales did for Percy Montgomery as a player, and I’m sure Jean is going to return to South Africa a better player for his Irish experience. We agreed it’s all about challenging yourself.’

It’s the reason Fourie decided to move to the Stormers. The Lions haven’t won the Currie Cup since 1999 and have finished in the Super 14’s bottom four since the Cats franchise split in 2006. The Lions weren’t willing to release Fourie given that he had another year to serve on his contract, which prompted Fourie to turn to his lawyer Frikkie Erasmus, who incidentally is the Stormers’ commercial manager. On examining Fourie’s contract, Erasmus discovered the player was employed as a ‘technical analyst’ and that the contract was not legally binding.

Fourie played his rugby for Hoërskool Monument and the Lions invested a great deal of time and money in his development. Chief executive Manie Reyneke said it was a slap in the face when he decided to cut his stay   short, as the union had stood by him through every one of his injury setbacks.

This stirred a debate of professionalism versus integrity. A player must do what’s best for himself financially, as sporting careers aren’t as long as they used to be, but on the other hand you’re only as good as your word, and a contract – legally binding or not – should be honoured.

Fourie believes the Lions missed the point. He was clear when he said he no longer wanted to represent a union that won’t reach its former heights while he’s still in his prime. He’s not ungrateful, but he didn’t appreciate their relentless efforts to keep him in what was essentially a losing environment.

‘I don’t want to badmouth the Lions, but what happened towards the end of last season was very sad,’ he says. ‘I really didn’t want to play there anymore, but they went to extreme lengths to ensure I remained at the union. They made it as uncomfortable for me as possible by taking the matter to court. That was their mentality.

‘For me, there had been no changes at the Lions and I told them I’d served my time and wanted to move on. But they didn’t see it like that. It was a sad way to end the Lions part of my career.

‘I can understand where they were coming from. They had just appointed a new CEO, hired a new coach and put plans in place for the future. But it was too late for me, my time was up and I wanted bigger and better things.’

Life wasn’t so lekker for Fourie after the Tri-Nations. He was unable to secure an early release to join Western Province for the back end of the Currie Cup. No matter the outcome of the court case, the Lions were going to lose Fourie one way or another. If they had won the legal battle, they’d have kept a player who didn’t want to be there.

WP and the Stormers are only slightly better off than the Lions when it comes to achievement. They last won the Currie Cup in 2001 and haven’t made the Super Rugby play-offs since 2004. Senior professional coach Rassie Erasmus feels 2010 could be the year they crack the top four and has made some big signings in Fourie and Bok wing Bryan Habana, but it could be a while before these players find their feet in the Cape systems. Nevertheless, Fourie feels they are on the right track.

‘Like the Lions, the Stormers struggle because they don’t have the players,’ he explains. ‘You look at the Sharks and Bulls who are always right up there in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup because they each have at least 15 Boks at their unions. To think the Bulls can start a match with as many as 15 internationals is scary.

‘The Lions only had one or two Boks in their side and it was a struggle. You’d have to play out of your skin to get close to winning a game, and I was fed up with that.

‘The Stormers have some exciting players in their squad and have the potential to challenge for the Super 14 title and win the Currie Cup. It’s a bonus that Bryan is coming down too, and I think there’s a fantastic mix of experience and promising youngsters. I also think I’m the right kind of player for their game plan.’

It’s an open secret that De Villiers will reassess his future with Munster in early 2010. If he opts for a release, we may see the potent pair reunited in Stormers colours in the build-up to the World Cup in New Zealand.

‘When I spoke to him he did say he was eyeing a World Cup return,’ Fourie confirms, unable to hide his effervescent optimism. ‘That would make for a lekker Stormers backline. Peter Grant, Jean, myself, Bryan, Conrad Jantjes, Joe Pietersen – it all sounds very exciting.

‘But that’s thinking a bit too far ahead. The year 2009 was a big one for me, but there have been a few smaller sideshows I’d rather forget. I’ve had some niggles and the biggest disappointment was the Lions court case. Hopefully in 2010 there won’t be any distractions and I can focus on my rugby.’

By Jon Cardinelli

– This article first appeared in the Jan-Feb issue of SA Rugby magazine. Click here to subscribe