‘I never got a chance to prove myself’

England’s South African-born-flank Hendré Fourie wants to make a statement against the Boks, writes GAVIN MORTIMER in SA Rugby magazine.

You know Hendré Fourie is well on his way to becoming a fully-fledged Englishman when he starts salivating at the mention of fish and chips and Yorkshire puddings. And he’s also partial to a pint of warm beer.

It’s been five years since the 31-year-old Fourie packed his bags and headed to England, taking up the offer of a part-time contract with Rotherham, a Yorkshire club then in Division One. Two years later he joined Leeds – becoming a full-time professional in the process – and what has happened since has been, in Fourie’s own words, ‘a fairytale’. He was first selected for the England A team in February 2010 and his ball carrying and fierce defence then earned him a call-up to the senior squad for the June tour to Australia and New Zealand.

‘It was a complete shock,’ admits Fourie.  ‘Me and the missus had gone to the cinema in the evening and halfway during the film I saw my phone flashing. I didn’t answer it because I didn’t want to disturb people but I looked at the number and didn’t recognise it. As we left the cinema I said to my wife, “What are the chances it’s [England manager] Martin Johnson?” Then I listened to the message and it was him, congratulating me on making the England squad.’

Unfortunately for Fourie things didn’t quite go according to plan once in Australia. A niggling calf injury flared up during the first game – England’s 28-28 draw with the Australian Barbarians – and he was replaced at half-time to play no further part in the tour. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

‘I probably played some of the best rugby I’ve ever played in that first half against the Baa-Baas,’ he says.

Johnson clearly agreed with Fourie’s assessment because when he announced his 32-man elite playing squad in July, Fourie had made the cut. He won his first Test cap against New Zealand two weeks ago, and nothing would give him greater pleasure than to line up against the Springboks next Saturday.

‘That would be special,’ he says with a laugh. ‘And if I could be involved in scoring the winning try it would be even better as it would show South Africa they were wrong to let me go.’

The words are spoken in jest but one senses that Fourie, by nature a cheerful, easy-going man, stills feels the bitter pang of rejection by South Africa. Born in Burgersdorp and educated at Free State University, he played for Shimlas before representing the Free State Cheetahs in the Vodacom Cup. When he missed out on selection for the Vodacom Cup squad in 2005, Fourie decided to try his luck in England.

Reflecting on that difficult period of his life (Fourie considered quitting rugby and putting his degree in software development to better use), he says: ‘I think South Africa could improve the way they go about identifying talent at an early age. I appreciate that there’s a vast pool of talent in the country but I feel I never got a chance to prove myself and I know there were many others like me.’

Fourie’s other disadvantage was his size. At 1.83m and 108kg he’s not the biggest flanker in world rugby and though the likes of Neil Back, George Smith and Serge Betsen have  all proved to be world-class openside flankers, the tradition in South Africa is to select players who are 1.90m plus.

‘When I left school I was told I wasn’t big enough to play flank,’ Fourie explains. ‘So I spent three years as a hooker. Eventually in about 2002 I reverted to playing flank but there’s definitely a trend in South Africa to pick big opensiders. I was delighted to  see Heinrich Brüssow break through last season and show what he can do despite being smaller than me [Brüssow is 1.81m and 105kg].’

At Leeds Fourie has come under the wing of one of the great opensiders of recent times, Neil Back, another small man but one whose heart lacks nothing in size. Nor does his brain, and already Fourie says he’s learnt a great deal from the 66-Test veteran.

‘He’s done so much to improve my game,’ Fourie says. ‘He gives me small tips, little things you might not think are that important, but they are and they’ve made me so much better as a player. But it’s also his advice on my lifestyle – from what I eat to how I prepare for games – that has helped.’

The respect is mutual and at the start of the English Premiership season Back declared that he was expecting great things from Fourie this year.

‘For me, Hendré was the standout openside flanker in the Premiership last season,’ says Back. ‘He was doing everything slightly better than some great players in the Premiership … if he plays as well as he can this season, he can get that starting role with England.’

Far from heaping pressure on Fourie’s shoulders, the assessment has given him a greater incentive to force his way into the England team.

‘When a player like Neil Back says that about you it can only give you a boost because if he believes it, you must be doing something right. I certainly believe I can do it [play for England]; my armoury is good enough and if I play well for Leeds every week I don’t see why I can’t play for England. It should be the ambition of every player to be No 1 in his position and I’m no different.’

When Fourie returned home from the cinema with Johnson’s message still ringing in his ears, one of the first things he did was phone his dad in South Africa.

‘He was so proud he was almost in tears,’ recalls Fourie. ‘All my family have been supportive of me and when I was back in South Africa in July for a few weeks my friends were congratulating me. I’ve had nothing but positive feedback.’

It’s unlikely that Fourie’s dad will make it to Twickenham in November (getting a visa at short notice is difficult – even for the father of an international rugby player) so he’ll have to content himself with watching the matches on TV. But Fourie believes his dad will see an England side coming to the boil just in time for next year’s World Cup.

‘The balance of youth and experience is now there in the squad,’ says Fourie. ‘Martin Johnson has shown faith in the players and that’s given us the confidence to go out there and play the way we can. If players feel they have the support of the coach it makes them much more secure and that will show in the way they play.’

England’s results on their mid-year tour to Australia and New Zealand were mixed: played five, won two, drew one, lost two, but the most significant result was the 21-20 victory in the second Test against Australia, only their third Test win Down Under in 47 years of trying.

‘I wasn’t surprised by the win,’ says Fourie, ‘because even though we’d lost the first Test there was a positive attitude running through the squad and we knew it was just a question of making the odd tweak here and there.’

England’s win against the Wallabies was more than South Africa managed in Australia in this year’s Tri-Nations, but Fourie doesn’t believe that there’s too much wrong with the Springboks.

‘I wouldn’t be too worried,’ he says. ‘The margins in Test rugby are so narrow that one missed tackle – as happened against New Zealand [in Soweto] – and the game is lost. South Africa beat New Zealand three times in 2009 and this time it’s the other way round.’

Fourie has been impressed by what he’s seen of the All Blacks this season, though a wry smile escapes his lips as he lavishes praise on Richie McCaw and his boys.

‘They have been awesome, haven’t they? But then they were like this the year before the previous World Cup and then they faded come the tournament. It’s all looking a little bit familiar.’

As befits a man of Fourie’s positive outlook, he’s quite happy to state that he has every intention of playing in next year’s World Cup – particularly as his family would have time to get visas – but he knows there’s a lot of work to be done between now and then. First he needs to get a good season under his belt at Leeds, one of the Premiership’s smallest clubs in terms of finance and resources. This year they’ll be bolstered by the presence of one of John Smit’s great adversaries, England’s World Cup-winning hooker Steve Thompson, and at lock there’s the formidable bulk of Marco Wentzel, the former Blue Bull.

‘Marco is the best lineout technician I’ve ever seen,’ says Fourie. ‘Last year he got the most steals in the Premiership and the work he puts into organising attack and defence moves in the lineout is amazing.’

The calf injury that forced Fourie’s withdrawal from the tour to Australia has been fixed and he’s eager to impress now that the season has started. The English winter is already on its way so it won’t be long before Fourie’s knee deep in mud in the teeth of a raging gale. All a long way from his days playing for the Cheetahs, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, Bloemfontein’s not known for the quality of its Yorkshire puddings …

– This article first appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby magazine. The December issue is on sale next week.