Firing up the Stormers

JON CARDINELLI, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says a pre-season injury to Tiaan Liebenberg has given Deon Fourie a chance to shine.

There’s something about Deon Fourie that screams catalyst. His fire-starting quality has been honed and harnessed by the Cape brains trust over the past four seasons. And on the rare occasions that he’s been unleashed, Fourie has left defenders beaten and burnt.

Nobody could forget a particularly rousing moment in a 2009 fixture at Loftus Versfeld, where Fourie exploded through a half gap to bring the Stormers back into the contest. The Cape side may have failed to complete a comeback, but their reserve hooker had ignited the interest of the South African rugby fraternity.

Back then, Fourie was behind Tiaan Liebenberg and Schalk Brits in the Stormers’ pecking order. Nowadays, Brits is no longer with the Stormers, and a pre-season knee injury has sidelined Liebenberg for nine weeks. This means Fourie won’t be limited to second-half cameos in 2011; he’ll need to fire from minute one.

While there’s a healthy appreciation for Fourie’s aptitude for Super Rugby, the loss of a senior player will certainly be felt. Liebenberg may not be rated by the Springbok selectors, but his Super Rugby performances over the past three seasons have helped the Cape forwards build a fearsome reputation as a powerful unit.

Liebenberg is a key ball-carrier who consistently breaches the gainline. In 2010, his strong scrummaging helped lay the attacking platform, while his accuracy at the lineout was not given the recognition it deserved. In a nutshell, Liebenberg was the complete tight forward, boasting a physicality capable of unsettling the toughest opponents as well as the ball skills needed to thrive in a looser contest. While Fourie is a different kind of player, he will have to lift his game if he’s going to fill that void.

‘Losing Tiaan was a big blow, but we need to trust in our depth,’ says Stormers forwards coach Matt Proudfoot, in a move to allay concerns. ‘We lost Andries Bekker for the entire Currie Cup last year but we had a great replacement in Anton van Zyl. That’s how professional sport works.

‘Deon will do a job for us at hooker and there won’t be any big changes to our plans, but just as Anton brought something different to the second row in 2010, Deon will bring his own brand of dynamism to the hooking position in 2011. Apart from his unique skill set, he has an effervescent personality. He’s more than capable of fulfilling his role, and his positive attitude rubs off on his team-mates.’

There have been doubts that Fourie will offer the same physicality as Liebenberg, the kind of physicality that sets the example for the rest of the team to follow. Fourie is also returning from an injury that limited his involvement in the pre-season matches, and if he takes another serious knock during the Stormers’ campaign, the Cape side will be short on options. Siyabonga Ntubeni has been named as Fourie’s understudy, even though he’s yet to play Currie Cup rugby. Third in line is Stellenbosch hooker Callie Visagie, who has two Currie Cup caps for Western Province as a reserve.

Proudfoot maintains that Fourie is tough enough and experienced enough to do more than just survive in the unforgiving Super Rugby environment.

‘Over the years he’s become more consistent, not only through his contributions in the loose, but also through those in the tight,’ says the former Bulls and Scotland prop. ‘Deon’s worked hard on his scrumming and has also had an impact at the lineout. We scored three pushover tries in the 2010 Currie Cup when he was heavily involved.

‘After undergoing a shoulder operation earlier this year, he’s back to where he started, and is still trying to improve on his physique. We are going to have to manage that going forward, as with Tiaan out, Deon’s likely to play 10 Super Rugby games in a row. We also have a long-term goal in place, because we realise that Tiaan isn’t going to be around forever.’

Fourie is on a strength and conditioning programme that should help him add to his modest 102kg bulk. If he’s going to be a more regular starter for the Stormers in years to come, he’ll need to bridge the weight gap between him and his larger counterparts.

Truth be told, his build resembles that of an openside flank, a position he’s occasionally played in recent seasons. Incidentally, it was at openside where he began his career until his coach at Hoërskool Pietersburg convinced him to move to hooker.

Fourie adapted quickly, but never forsook his free-running tendencies. In 2004, he was signed by WP after an impressive display at Craven Week. Even though he’d grown up idolising Bulls hardman Ruben Kruger and his family was Bulls-crazy, he realised that going to Cape Town was a wise career move. He progressed through WP’s junior ranks and was later selected for the SA U19 and Springbok Sevens teams. He made his senior provincial debut in 2006, his Stormers debut in 2008, and in 2010, he finally got a start for the Cape franchise.

‘I was a bit anxious before that game against the Highlanders, but I also realised how lucky I was to be there. Sitting in the locker room before kick-off, I took a look around me. Being among players of that calibre inspired me to lift my game.’

Fourie scored a try in a comfortable win for the Stormers, and produced an all-round performance that was true to his game. At the same time, he acknowledged the part men like Liebenberg and Brits had played in his development.

‘I learnt a lot from playing under and watching those players, but if you try to copy another player’s style, you‘ll be in trouble,’ he says. ‘I try to play my own style of rugby, within the team’s systems of course.

‘This year, I’ve focused on my conditioning and beefed up physically. You need to embrace the physical aspect of the game, and after last season, I knew that I had to get a bit bigger. I wanted to make more of an impact in this department.

‘Tiaan’s injury was a stroke of bad luck for him, but it’s given me an opportunity. The pressure is now on me to perform. There are individual aspects like lineout throwing where I’ll need to be sharp, and then there are aspects like scrumming where it’s all about performing as a combination.’

The injury to Liebenberg has left a hole in the Stormers’ leadership as well as the front row. Proudfoot prefers to view it as another opportunity, and expects Fourie to grow into his new role. He may have a God-given talent, but his commitment and discipline are also of the highest order.

‘Tiaan is the senior pro, but that doesn’t mean Deon doesn’t have a responsibility,’ says Proudfoot. ‘It’s our job as coaches to empower young players like Deon and encourage them to embrace that new role.’

And more responsibility doesn’t scare the firebrand. There’s the responsibility of fulfilling the traditional requirements of a tight forward, but there’s also the coaches’ directive to be true to his instincts, to burn defences with his explosive pace. The special players are, after all, the ones who take the initiative.

‘Having played a lot of sevens, I’m always looking for gaps and spaces to exploit,’ he says. ‘If I see a gap, I’m going to take it.’

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

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