Gunning for greatness

Pierre Spies has become one of the world’s elite No 8s. And he will get even better.

Here’s a thought to consider: Pierre Spies is into his fifth year as a professional at No 8. When you trace his progress since he reluctantly relinquished his ambition of becoming a Springbok wing in 2005, you begin to understand the magnitude of what he has achieved.

If he were to garner a passing mention in comparison to the world’s elite No 8s – France’s superlative Imanol Harinordoquy, the Italian colossus Sergio Parisse and Ireland’s gifted Jamie Heaslip (Harinordoquy at 30, and Parisse and Heaslip at 26, are six and two years his seniors respectively) – he would have achieved much. Likewise, if he were to be spoken of as having similar promise to some emerging eights like Springbok team-mate Ryan Kankowski, the robust Duane Vermeulen from the Stormers or the Brumbies’ excellent Stephen Hoiles.

However, Spies doesn’t simply stack up well. The fact that he’s widely regarded to be better than Kankowski, Vermeulen and Hoiles, and that a similarly strong argument can be made in the debate of whether he trumps Harinordoquy, Parisse and Heaslip – all of whom have spent the majority of their amateur and professional career in the position – bears testament to the phenomenon that Spies is. That he isn’t an imposter in their company speaks of his adaptability, unrelenting work ethic, mental strength and ability to learn. That he could be the finest of the lot, although such assertions are rarely absolute, is a salute to him and his coaches.

According to those who have worked closely with him, he will get better. A lot better.

‘The new breakdown law interpretations have allowed the attacking side to carry the ball through a lot more phases than they were able to previously, and this has amplified Pierre’s strengths because there’s often space and time for him to work with in the wider channels after five or six phases,’ Spies’s mentor and Bulls director of rugby, Heyneke Meyer, explains. ‘He’s a threat with ball in hand normally, but when he’s running at a depleted defensive line, he’s formidable. The less numbers you are able to post on him the greater the chance he’s going to hurt you. If he’s utilised intelligently by the Springboks, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be, he could be the difference between winning and losing a Test.’

Eddie Jones, former consultant to the 2007 Springbok World Cup-winning team and successful Wallabies coach, offers his insight.

‘The breakdown law interpretations will see him become the pre-eminent No 8 in world rugby, simply because he’s light years ahead of any of the competition in terms of sheer athleticism and physicality. Who matches his pace? Nobody, not even Kankowski, who has some appreciable toe. Who matches his upper-body strength and leg drive? Same answer. He doesn’t have an equal as an eight in terms of the sustainability of his contribution at the highest level because none are as fit.

‘He needs to make minor technical improvements and he could be making better decisions. I’d also like to see him develop a short pass before contact because that would give him an unpredictable edge – will he pass, will he run? – but he’s a relative kid who’ll develop those skills in time.’

Bulls technical analyst and forwards coach Johann van Graan has worked with Spies since he was a Standard 9 (Grade 11) pupil at Affies and knows his game intimately. He points out areas Meyer and Jones have omitted.

‘Certainly the fact that there are now longer phases allows running No 8s like Pierre to get multiple carries in one possession, but his potency is amplified by the fact that players are now commanded to freeze their kick-chase if they are in front of the kicker, whereas before that area wasn’t policed as strictly,’ he explains. ‘Now Pierre has more space and time to assess his options, and when he runs he’s always a line-breaking threat, or at the very least commits two defenders which then creates gaps in the defensive line.

‘His high-ball catching has also developed immensely in the past year or so and his work from the base of the scrum now rivals that of Hoiles and Harinordoquy, who are two of the best in that department. He won’t stand still or regress because his work ethic is unrelenting and he can’t stand mediocrity. He’ll be one of the greats of the game.’

Spies has learnt to treat the dual imposters – adulation and criticism – with equal contempt. He knows the truth lies somewhere in between. That said, his self-belief is unwavering. ‘I believe that when I play to my potential I’m the best in the world,’ he says.

I prompted the response by revisiting the very same assertion he made prior to the British & Irish Lions tour in 2009. The British media fed on the quote like a pack of famished hyenas, their appraisal of the assertion ranging from ‘arrogant’ (The Times of London) to ‘downright deluded’ (The Independent).

‘I don’t think the media and public know what they want you to be sometimes – humble [read: self-effacing] or supremely confident,’ he counters. ‘I don’t think I lack humility and neither am I apologetic about my own estimation of my standing in the game. I believe I have something special because I’m unlike most No 8s in terms of my pace, and my experience as a backline player gives me a more holistic understanding of how best to link with them and about attacking lines in the backline.

‘I don’t tell everyone who will listen how good I am, and I know there are areas of my game that need to improve.’

‘Like what?’ I interject, before offering a personally held belief that with his immense upper-body strength he should be more dominant at the tackle point on defence.

‘I agree with that and it’s something that I’ve been working on,’ he says. ‘I’m not a player who smashes okes 5m backwards in the tackle, but I realise I should be harnessing my strength better in contact. That’s just one example of many, like getting a lower body position in some contact situations in attack or working more effectively with Fourie [du Preez, the Bulls and Springbok scrumhalf].

‘But there are no No 8s with a complete game. If you analyse them closely they all have shortcomings. The best ones make those shortcomings less apparent by maximising their strengths.’

The one enduring criticism of Spies is that his threat is significantly diminished when required to mix it in the tight loose.

‘Rubbish,’ says Van Graan. ‘That argument was valid early in his career but people who still peddle that argument don’t know the facts.

‘Statistically he compares favourably with Hoiles, who’s one of the best at controlling the ball and playing from the base of the scrum, or with Vermeulen, who’s defensively superb in the tight loose and a powerful counter-rucker. His work rate and effectiveness in the tight loose can no longer be questioned. He carries the ball 10-13 times per match, many of those close to the ruck, and gets over the advantage line 80% of the time; he’s consistently among the best at the Bulls in terms of tackle count and the accuracy of those tackles, as he is in the rucking stats. He has also become a banker at the lineout, which is invaluable if your primary jumpers are under pressure. Maybe we should bury that argument.’

However, while he may have made strides in dispelling long-held perceptions about his aptitude for close combat, his primary value to the Springboks will be when tactical engineering creates opportunities for him to be pitted against the backs he dwarfs.

Doing so with the consistency that separates good Test players from the great ones will be his challenge.

‘In 2009 it felt like my game kicked up a gear to the point where I was a lot more influential than I had been previously,’ Spies explains. ‘The very best players are able to replicate those types of performances regularly.

‘Consistency is crucial because I realise now that if I fire, the Boks do well. As a rookie I was pretty carefree and just had a jol, but now I have a greater appreciation of my role and what my contribution should be.’

Meyer adds: ‘He’s more tactically astute now and is also able to rebound from bad starts in a way he wasn’t able to in the past. That comes with maturity and improved emotional intelligence in the sense that he realises that one mistake doesn’t make him a bad player and that it shouldn’t dictate his mood and, as a result, his performance.

‘That all bodes well for the Springboks because he’s making massive steps year-on-year. If he continues to progress like he has, questions about who the best in the world is will be futile.’

By Ryan Vrede

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine