Different class

GAVIN RICH, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Jaque Fourie is staking a strong claim to be the world’s best outside centre.

Two years ago the Hurricanes beat the Lions 38-32 in a Super 14 game at Ellis Park and afterwards All Blacks centre Conrad Smith stepped up to claim his Man of the Match award. Smith had scored two tries for the Hurricanes and his intelligent play in his team’s No 13 jersey had created a couple more for the visitors. Most would have thought him a deserved Man of the Match recipient, but Smith didn’t think so – instead he spoke about the man who was his opposite number that night, Jaque Fourie. In Smith’s view Fourie should have received the Man of the Match award and he left no one in any doubt about the massive respect he had for the Springbok.

Smith was right about the quality of Fourie’s performance that night – he scored two tries, helped create the other two and was at the heart of everything that the Lions did well. It seemed every time he touched the ball he was off on one of his charges through the opposing defence, contemptuously brushing off tacklers when he couldn’t beat them for pace.

It was that game, as much as any other, that announced Fourie’s return to top form and full momentum after a frustrating post-World Cup year in which he spent much of it on the sidelines. That period away from the game is something critics should perhaps take more cognisance of when they consider his right to be thought of as the world’s best outside centre.

According to one of Fourie’s predecessors in the Bok midfield, Pieter Müller, it’s only those injuries that have prevented Fourie from being head and shoulders above any other contender for the right to be called the world’s best.

‘He’s had a couple of injuries that have struck him down when he’s started approaching top form but to me he’s one of those rare players who just doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses. He’s big, fast, strong and brilliant defensively,’ says Müller.

While Fourie was away in 2008, Adi Jacobs did well enough to earn a starting place in the Springbok team for the first two Tests against the British & Irish Lions in 2009. It robbed the audience of the opportunity to properly judge Fourie in a head-to-head confrontation with the player widely regarded as the best in the world at the time – Ireland’s highly-rated Brian O’Driscoll.

Fourie was watching from the bench when O’Driscoll weaved his way through the Bok defence almost every time he touched the ball in those two matches, and O’Driscoll left the field concussed soon after Fourie arrived on it to make a massive difference to the Bok effort in the series-deciding last quarter of the second Test at Loftus.

But if you ask Müller, he leaves little doubt that if he had to choose between the two, Fourie would be the player he would select for his team.

‘O’Driscoll is an extraordinary attacking talent and he has withstood the test of time, but Jaque is also exceptionally strong on attack and has other attributes that make him a better all-round player. He’s big and he hurts the opposition when he tackles them. That’s what makes him a better package in my opinion; he’s just a much more influential defensive player, and defence is such an important part of that position.’

Speaking at a press conference before the first Tri-Nations Test of 2009 in Bloemfontein, Fourie had journalists agog when he stated matter-of-factly, when asked about his return to the Bok starting line-up for the match against the All Blacks, that he was the best in the world. But rather than accuse Fourie of arrogance, critics should instead try to recall those occasions when he could reasonably have considered himself to have been bettered by an opponent.

It’s hard to think of any, and it is easy to see how someone so physically imposing and so in control of his channel might be able to talk himself into thinking no one could outplay him in a head-to-head battle. And as another former Springbok centre, Brendan Venter, says, size is important.

‘What you need from an outside centre is someone who is very strong defensively as well as capable of testing opposing defences on attack,’ he says. ‘Conrad Smith is a good player known for his intelligence, but he lacks the zip and thrust of Jaque or O’Driscoll. I think O’Driscoll is exceptional; he is the best outside centre ever to have played the game. But he has lost a bit of his speed, and a No 13 is reliant on speed.

‘Jaque has also lost some of his speed; it’s natural and is a fact of life. No one in their late 20s is as quick as they were when they were 21. But he has other things that give him an edge over the other outside centres. What he has on O’Driscoll is his size. Jaque is three inches taller than Brian, and I don’t care what anyone says, that does make a difference. It’s just a fact of rugby that being bigger makes a player so much harder for the opposition to deal with.’

Venter says that Fourie’s size means he holds defences, forcing opposing teams to commit more defenders to look after him.

‘I like to judge a player on what I imagine it would have been like to play against him. I would have hated to play against Jaque; he would have been a tough proposition because he has so much going for him. Apart from  his size, strength and speed, he has good feet for an outside centre, and his defence is massive. He really dominates his channel.’

Fourie’s midfield partner at the Stormers and the Boks, Jean de Villiers, nods his head in agreement with Venter’s assertion that Fourie is not a player you would relish playing against.

‘I’m really pleased to be in the same team as Jaque at Super Rugby level because he was the one guy I never enjoyed playing against when he was at the Lions,’ says De Villiers. ‘He’s been one of the top outside centres for quite a while now. He’s one of the truly great players and what makes him so great is his consistency. He seldom has a bad game, in fact it’s hard for me to recall when he has had a bad game. Defensively he is so solid, and he runs great lines. He’s a big threat to the opposition on attack.

‘It’s an enjoyable experience to play with Jaque as he is one of those guys who makes things easier for you. I think it’s been said often enough – his biggest attribute is probably his ability to communicate. He has great communication skills and is a gifted organiser of the defensive system.’

For another former Bok No 13, Robbie Fleck, it is those communication skills that put Fourie in a league of his own.

‘What makes Mossie outstanding is his ability to communicate and this is a skill that separates the world-class player from the merely good one,’ says Fleck, who as Stormers backline coach has plenty of inside knowledge on Fourie’s strengths and weaknesses.But Fleck is reluctant to take a line on whether Fourie is better than O’Driscoll on the basis that they are completely different players with contrasting styles.

‘O’Driscoll is a player you could use as an inside centre, whereas Jaque is an out- and-out outside centre. They have different attributes and fulfil their own roles for their respective teams. I reckon if you put them up against each other those differences would probably negate each other and you would get a stalemate.’

Fleck has no doubt that Fourie is among the finest outside centres he has seen in a career which started as a player at first-class level in 1997.

‘He’s definitely right near the top of the list of players I have seen during my time. Defensively he has few, if any, peers, in terms of organisation and execution. I know what a difference he makes to our defence when he’s present. He dominates the outside channel and dictates how opposition teams play against us by cutting down their options.

‘On attack he also has just about everything – he has great physique, is fast and he runs beautiful lines. He’s strong on his feet and difficult to bring down, so his ability to offload and hold the ball up is another one of his big strengths. Overall he’s not a player you would say has any weaknesses.

‘At the Stormers we feel he sometimes chases too many rucks and is therefore not always in the position he should be in to maximise his attacking opportunities, and we are working on that. But how can you fault a player for having a high work rate?’

Venter and De Villiers both also pinpointed Fourie’s personality as an important part of the armoury of any team he plays for.

‘He’s one of those players who still manages to stand out when things get tough and who is prepared to take on an extra load when the chips are down and the team isn’t playing well,’ says Venter. ‘He’ll look to try something different by running a line off the 10 or a line off the scrumhalf. That is an invaluable thing to have in a player.

‘In many ways he is similar to Jean in that he has a massive personality and inspires confidence in players around him. He makes things happen. He would be an extremely valuable player on the international market; a club in France would pay a huge amount of money to buy him. One of the reasons the Lions boxed above their weight in the years before John Mitchell arrived was because of Jaque. Since he left them it has become a lot harder for them. He is a special player and they miss him.’

– This article first appeared in the June issue of SA Rugby magazine. The July issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 22 June.
Click here to subscribe to print edition
Click here to subscribe to digital edition