Return of the king

RYAN VREDE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, explains why Fourie du Preez will be the Springboks’ key player this year as they seek to defend the World Cup.

Accept, as a point of departure, that the technical qualities that constitute skill are speed, accuracy, adaptability and form, combined with the less observable quality of heart.

Now consider the assertion that rare prodigious skill is achieved when those qualities are blended with vision, intelligence and consistently cool temperament under pressure and you move towards a greater understanding of why Fourie du Preez is South Africa’s most gifted and, in a World Cup year, most valuable player.

Few of Du Preez’s contemporaries have displayed all these qualities as consistently as he has throughout his career. Even fewer have embodied all at any one time, where doing so has defined Du Preez.

It is therefore no surprise that the Springboks, and to a lesser extent the Bulls (in the Currie Cup), struggled without him in 2010, the former resembling a zombie staggering aimlessly and impotently through the international season. His return from a shoulder injury reignites hope of a defence of the promised land the Springboks occupied in France in 2007 and improves the Bulls’ bid for a third successive Super Rugby title.

Only All Blacks Richie McCaw and Dan Carter can compare with Du Preez’s value to their sides. All are players with the capacity to be the difference between defeat and victory.

‘There’s no question about that,’ Heyneke Meyer, Bulls technical director and long-time mentor to Du Preez, agrees. ‘If he doesn’t play the Boks are in serious trouble and the Bulls wouldn’t be the side they have been in the past couple of years.

‘People point out that he is integral to their game plan, which is true. There isn’t a better box-kicking scrumhalf in world rugby. But that doesn’t take into account his full value.

‘As the link between the forwards and the backs he is the most influential player on the park. Your decision-making has to be so sharp there, especially at international level where space and time are at a premium. No player can match his decision-making under pressure. How often do you see him take the wrong option, whether it be a quick tap, breaking around the blindside, countering from deep, picking off a strike runner or playing wider?

‘It’s no secret why Morné [Steyn, Bulls and Springbok flyhalf] excelled in 2009 and struggled in 2010. Fourie takes so much pressure off him. He is the team’s brain and his absence is more often than not reflected in the result.’

Du Preez’s former team-mate at the Bulls and senior Springbok Bryan Habana concurs and extols his value beyond the technical disciplines.

‘You’re lifted when you see him lacing up his boots opposite you in the change room,’ Habana begins. ‘He has an aura that few players I’ve ever played for or against have. He brings a sense of calm, a sense of expectation. What’s more, you know there are a bunch of guys down the corridor wishing he was in their change room, and a team of [opposition] coaches who’ve spent weeks analysing his play, trying to make sure he is a non-factor. I know, I’ve been in the opposing change room. You can’t put a value on a player like that, especially in the big games.’

Habana raises an important point. While there is no action, no manoeuvre, and no tactical insight beyond Du Preez – what he sees in his mind’s eye he is able to execute with precision – his ability to do so in matches of the highest significance amplifies his potency. It is one of the qualities that separates the good from the great.

Consider his most significant contributions in recent history for the Bulls: scoring their first two tries in the 2009 Super 14 final to settle their nerves after a poor start, and later setting up a decisive score for Habana with the most perfectly weighted grubber.

In the Currie Cup final later that year, Du Preez’s execution matched his awareness with a cross-kick to an unmarked Francois Hougaard on the wing. To illustrate that his range of ability knows no bounds, he later scooped a wayward pass off his bootlaces and put Habana away. Their third try saw Du Preez chip into an unmanned space, leaving Habana a simple collection and sprint to the tryline.

He turned the tide of the 2010 Super 14 semi-final when he broke blind to score a momentum-shifting try against the Crusaders, and in the final he picked off Hougaard’s angled run to strike an early blow from which the Stormers never recovered. A similar highlights package could easily be compiled for the Springboks, his masterclass against England in the pool match of the 2007 World Cup headlining the piece.

‘If your scrumhalf crumbles under pressure your whole team will fall apart,’ Meyer explains. ‘Fourie never will because he has no flaws that can be exploited. Absolutely none.’

Du Preez says: ‘I’d like to think that I can excel, not just survive, in the biggest games. When you look around the field in big Tests and finals rugby you can see the guys who are just happy to survive, happy to be there. I won’t settle for that. I want to be the difference between my team winning and losing, and when you’ve got a team of players with the same mindset, it makes for a formidable unit. I back myself to put in at least an eight out of 10 performance in the biggest matches. Anything less and I’m letting my team down when they need me most.

‘The game has changed in form a lot in recent years, but the one thing that stays the same is that you have players who can handle the pressure of big matches and those who can’t. I’d like to be remembered as a player who wasn’t found hiding in a bunker while my team-mates were taking heavy fire.’

Too many Springboks were holed up in those bunkers while under siege throughout the 2010 Test season. Admittedly their generals (read: the coaches) had failed them with a flawed battle plan, one that was too reliant on their star soldier, who described watching from his couch or the stands as ‘torture’.

‘There are a couple of reasons the Springboks did poorly,’ Du Preez begins his post-war assessment. ‘We came into the 2010 season still on the high of 2009. We were on top of the world and when our confidence took a knock we never recovered. It didn’t help that we also had a tough two-Test series in New Zealand where we seldom win.

‘But the main reason is that the guys couldn’t seem to make up their minds about how they wanted to play. In 2009 I was a part of the decision-making process regarding our game plan. I was probably also central to it working. But without me there the guys kept playing the same game, there was no adaptation and not enough appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of my replacement, be that Ricky Januarie, Ruan Pienaar or Francois Hougaard. Our execution was poor, sure, but I think we could have been more clever tactically.’

The impermanence of Du Preez’s absence was the consoling thought in a nightmare international season. However, his return, not unlike a second coming given the  redemptive qualities that accompany it, will be short-lived.

Du Preez has decided to pursue a career with Suntory in Japan following the World Cup (he’ll be 29 at the time), citing a desire to get out of his comfort zone and spend more time with his family as the primary reasons for his eastern expedition. With Du Preez restored, 2011 promises much for the Springboks. However, if a successor isn’t identified and invested in quickly, 2012 threatens to resemble the apocalyptic film by the same name.

Du Preez’s thoughts on this issue have been documented by this magazine, and having watched his anointed, Francois Hougaard, in an extended run with the Springboks, they haven’t changed.

‘He was brilliant in the Tri-Nations games he played,’ Du Preez says. ‘He showed he had the temperament to complement his talent. He struggled in the wet on the end-of-year tour but he’ll improve in that area.

‘He’ll be the Springbok scrumhalf for the next seven to eight years. My aim now is to pour as much of my knowledge into him as possible before I go to Japan. To leave empty.

‘He’s the perfect student, always keen to learn. I’ve come across team-mates who’ve wanted the guy ahead of them to fail so they could get a chance, but that’s never been the case with Francois. I want to leave South African rugby in better shape than I got it, and in Francois you have a player who could exceed what I’ve done.’

Having named his heir, what then of a coaching successor to Peter de Villiers? Du Preez doesn’t hesitate: ‘I think Heyneke would be the perfect candidate and he deserves the opportunity given what he’s achieved.

‘Next year will be a rebuilding year for the Boks and Heyneke has shown that there’s nobody better at putting structures into place for long-term success. He could build something that lasts beyond the four-year cycle between World Cups and I think we need that. He hasn’t been a head coach at Test level but indirectly he’s been responsible for much of the success of South African rugby through his player identification and player development at senior and junior level. A hands-on role would make him so much more valuable to South African rugby.’

Du Preez concludes with a telling statement: ‘I’d reconsider international retirement if Heyneke became coach.’

In that eventuality the debate will be raised about letting his genius rest at its apex, rather than exposing it to the erosive effect of ageing and the criticism that accompanies that process.

That is a discussion for the future. The present has Du Preez as a master of his craft, the Bulls and Springboks’ fulcrum and the player on which a world title defence rests more than any other.

However his story unfolds, Meyer believes Du Preez’s rugby eulogy won’t change.

‘Joost van der Westhuizen had the ability to hurt sides around the ruck fringe with his physicality. Then defences became tighter with the introduction of league-style systems and his threat was lessened.

‘George Gregan was the best when the game demanded a No 9 with sharp passing skills during the era where multi-phase play was the trend. But Fourie combines both those strengths and adds an unmatched kicking game and immense rugby intelligence.

‘He’ll be remembered as the best scrumhalf ever to play the game.’

– 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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