Forgotten man’s fight

JON CARDINELLI writes that Francois Louw refuses to believe that his World Cup dream is over, in SA Rugby magazine.

The relaxed body language is part of the boy-next-door veneer, but Francois Louw’s eyes can’t lie. They convey his disappointment. Upon provocation, they glow; two tiny infernos signifying the blaze within.

Louw was the Springboks’ fall guy after consecutive defeats in New Zealand last July. As the team’s rotten run continued, he dropped out of the Tri-Nations squad completely. He was then snubbed not once, but twice, in the lead up to the Boks’ end-of-year tour.

Louw has every right to be disappointed. While there’s been ample time for reflection, he’s no closer to understanding why he was cast aside so quickly. There are no regrets of unfulfilled potential nor lament for missed opportunities. It’s for these reasons that Louw finds his current status as South African rugby’s forgotten man particularly hard to accept.

After emerging as one of the standout players in the 2010 Super 14, Louw successfully made the step up to international level. He scooped an official Man of the Match accolade and two players’ Man of the Match awards for his game-swinging displays during the incoming tours. However, two Tests later, he had been unceremoniously dumped from the squad.

‘I’m not sure if the selectors felt I’d lost form, or if they came to the conclusion that I wasn’t good enough to be a Springbok,’ Louw says. ‘Playing against New Zealand was easily the biggest challenge of my Test career, but I felt I’d played to the best of my ability.

‘As a player that’s all you can do; then it’s up to the selectors to decide whether you’re good enough to stay there. I suppose they’re the ones who need to understand whether you fit into their plans or not.’

Those two losses to the All Blacks deserve closer analysis. The South African pack was overpowered in Auckland, with the hosts bossing the set phases and breakdowns. And the statistics will confirm that Louw wasn’t the only forward to underperform.

The Boks were better in Wellington, but not good enough to prevent another defeat. Louw’s breakdown performance was criticised without taking into account referee Alain Rolland’s limited understanding of the new laws, or the fact that opposite number Richie McCaw was just as severely penalised. The selectors viewed Louw as a liability to the team, and decided to revise their back-row dynamic.

They got it horribly wrong in Brisbane when they selected Ryan Kankowski in Louw’s place, as the visitors missed a player in the team capable of countering the Wallabies’ David Pocock at the breakdown. The old firm of Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies provided more stability than dominance in Soweto, which wasn’t enough to snap the losing streak.

It was around this time that Peter de Villiers began to concede that his team was struggling with the new law interpretations, even though the Bulls and Stormers had proved so innovative in the preceding Super 14. The make-up of De Villiers’s back row became a sore point with the man himself, as when asked to explain the continual omission of Louw or any other player who specialised in playing to the ball, De Villiers snapped, telling one journalist to pick the side for him.

Meanwhile, Louw was released to Western Province. He’d always judged himself harshly, and searched for the reasons for failure. Unfortunately, this inner conflict affected his performances in the Currie Cup, and the ordinary domestic displays seemed to justify De Villiers’s decision to drop him. The reality was Louw was hurting.

‘I was absolutely gutted,’ he remembers. ‘When I returned to Province, it wasn’t as simple as putting my head down and getting on with it. I was my own player and didn’t help the team as well as I could have during the first couple of games. I’m not proud of it, but it took me a while to get over the disappointment of being axed.

‘I felt I was back to my best by the play-offs. I really had to pick myself up and carry on, trying to get back to where I was before. Then it was another shock not to get the call for the end-of-year tour. Again, I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong.’

And did the Boks miss Louw on their November tour? The selection of Deon Stegmann was inexplicable, especially given his lack of game time in the Currie Cup and the fact that he was yet to represent the Boks. Burger’s injury in the Currie Cup final offered Louw hope, but when Stegmann and Sharks flanker Keegan Daniel were preferred, his dream of a recall was shattered.

The rise of the titanic Willem Alberts also encouraged the Boks’ brains trust, although they only had the nerve to start him against the Barbarians. Jean Deysel and Heinrich Brüssow were due back in 2011, while Dewald Potgieter had proved solid if not inspirational during the few outings he’d been granted.

The Boks returned with a favourable tour scorecard, but there were still more questions than answers, particularly in the back row. The selectors had failed to pick a balanced combination or implement a game plan conducive to the new laws.

It was unforgivable considering the aforementioned success of South Africa’s two premier Super Rugby teams, the Bulls and Stormers. The latter had proved especially proficient at the collisions, and the Bok coaches would have done well to play Louw, Burger and Stormers No 8 Duane Vermeulen as a combination. They’d enjoyed breakdown dominance in all five of the Stormers’ victories over New Zealand opposition.

It spoke volumes for the Boks’ structures; the Stormers recorded a clean sweep of the Kiwi franchises whereas the Boks couldn’t manage one win against the All Blacks just two months later. Perhaps there was a refusal to realise that the roles of loose forwards have changed significantly under the new law interpretations.

Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold singles out Louw as one of the few players to tick all the boxes of a modern-day loose forward, and feels he could still be an asset to the Bok side.

‘I don’t think there’s room for a classic opensider anymore, you have to be more of an all-rounder,’ says Gold. ‘Flo has that complete skill set: he can play to the ball, he’s a good lineout jumper, he carries the ball strongly, and is a tough defender. He consistently makes 60-odd positive contributions per game, a fantastic achievement if you think that 70 contributions is a special feat.

‘While the call for specialist fetchers is less demanding, it still helps to have somebody with those strengths. Flo’s anticipation is excellent, right up there with McCaw. He knows which rucks to hit and when to hang back in defence.

‘A feature of the best players is that they pick their moment. Flo conserves his energy without compromising his work-rate. He also has the speed to complement that decision-making, so when he gets to the ruck first he can make the call. It’s a quality all modern flankers need, and an area where McCaw is hugely underrated. Flo’s right up there when it comes to ruck arrivals, and that allows him to compete for the ball, whether he’s trying to win it, or slow it down.’

Gold’s description of the modern-day loose forward suggests Brüssow and Stegmann will need to adapt if they’re going to survive as Test options. Stegmann failed to impress on the recent tour of the home unions, while a serious knee injury sidelined Brüssow for the majority of 2010.

The big question in the build up to the 2011 World Cup is whether Brüssow can develop his skill set beyond that of an out-and-out ball stealer. His diminutive size means he’ll never be a lineout option, and despite his deceptive strength, he’s unlikely to make as many ball-carrying metres as the larger loosies.

The 2011 Super Rugby competition will reveal whether Brüssow can adapt and indeed whether Louw can take his 2010 form a step further. Louw forced his way into the Bok team by weight of performance in the 2010 Super 14, and he’ll need to do so once again if he’s going to book a World Cup place.

He’ll need to convince the skeptics in the Bok set-up that he’s an indispensable ingredient to a potent Bok back-row cocktail, and hopefully those same skeptics will have realised just what kind of player is required under the current laws. There are already a few overseas clubs that appreciate the fact, with English Premiership side Bath courting the 25-year-old flanker, hoping to sign him as a replacement for Port Elizabeth-bound Luke Watson.

‘I’ve still got some things I want to achieve in South Africa, and I’m not going to run away from that,’ he says. ‘If I go to Europe, it will be for very different reasons. There’s plenty to play for in terms of World Cup selection, but there’s a lot to play for in Super Rugby itself. And if the Stormers can get close to the goal of winning the trophy, then Springbok selection may well take care of itself.’

An England sojourn may be in Louw’s future, but not before he claws his way back into the Bok side. While he began 2011 a forgotten man, he will be determined to finish Super Rugby as a player the selectors cannot ignore.

– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April issue will be on sale from 16 March.
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