Analytical approach

GAVIN RICH discovers that Marius Joubert has become a thinking midfielder.

Everyone knows why the Sharks felt they needed to get Marius Joubert on their books, so to make the query would be to risk the disdain that is heaped on those who ask obvious questions.

In most of the Sharks’ defeats during this past Super Rugby season, it was the midfield that was targeted, particularly by the Crusaders and Sharks’ two fiercest rivals
from back home, the Stormers and Bulls. At some stages over the past few months, the Sharks centres were a bigger topic of conversation around Durban than the municipal elections.

Meyer Bosman was brought to Durban from the Cheetahs to fill a playmaker role at inside centre alongside the evergreen Stefan Terblanche, but while the Sharks coaches are still optimistic Bosman will come through and vindicate their decision to recruit him, their patience must be wearing thin.

Terblanche is still an honest player who probably should have been rewarded for his good form in 2008 and 2009 with the Springbok fullback jersey for the series against the British & Irish Lions. You would hesitate to suggest, though, that he is a natural outside centre, and while he has put in yeoman service for his adopted province in the unfamiliar position, it always looked a stop-gap move, albeit a long playing one.

The former Bok wing is not going to be around in top rugby for much longer, and you could say the same for Adi Jacobs, who looks better suited anyway to an impact role than one in the starting team. So the gap that Joubert is going to fill is hardly a secret – the Sharks need an experienced player who can impose himself in the midfield battle.

However, as was the case when Terblanche moved back to Durban from Wales in 2007, Joubert could provide them with a lot more than they bargained for. The Sharks management didn’t know what to expect from Terblanche, and they got a pleasant surprise. His years spent overseas had matured Terblanche to the point that the Sharks got more than just an experienced wing who could switch to fullback, they also got a consummate professional whose work ethic and insights rubbed off on those around him.

It would be fair to say that Terblanche’s contribution way exceeded expectations. And while some may remember Joubert as a Springbok who lost it a bit in his final season with Western Province and then with the Cheetahs, that was a long time ago. He has never lacked talent, and France is a tough school, so don’t bet against the 31-year-old proving as valuable as Terblanche was to the Sharks’ fortunes.

‘I have matured a lot since I left South Africa. When I went to France I was in many senses just a boy, but it’s a heck of a tough place to play and I was forced to grow up,’ says Joubert. ‘Before I left home I played a lot on instinct. I didn’t put much thought into what I was doing. I just went out there and played. What has changed for me in my time in France is that I have become deeply analytical, and Clermont’s Kiwi coach Vern Cotter has taught me to pay more attention to the small details.

‘Vern’s whole approach was that if you did something you had to know why you were doing it. If something went wrong, he wanted you to figure out why it happened. From what I hear, John Plumtree is similar to Vern in that way.

‘In Clermont I lived close to the stadium so I spent a lot of time there on the chalkboard, looking at ways to break down defences and analysing opposition systems. It was something I hadn’t done before. I started to read the opposition moves and intentions a lot more than I had in the past.’

Plumtree was pleased to hear Joubert believes he has become more of a thinking player, and there was some irony in him being told this as just a few days earlier he had spoken about his team’s dearth of such players and the need to develop them. He had addressed it with the players after the Durban defeat to the Bulls.

‘If Marius has become more of a thinker, I will be extremely chuffed because it does relate a lot to what we were talking about – we need that kind of player. It’s absolutely crucial that we breed players who fall into the thinking category and who are not just bashers,’ says Plumtree. ‘Marius is an experienced player who has spent four years playing in France. He is bound to have matured in that time, and we at the Sharks have profited from  having players like that in the past. Stefan is the obvious example; when he came back he made an immense contribution by sharing his experience and what he had learnt with those around him.

‘If Marius can also do that for us he will be worth his weight in gold. We’ve had a high turnover in the backline in recent years, and we have a lot of young players who are only just coming through and can do with some extra guidance.

‘But it’s not just what Marius can do as a leader that’s important. In Stefan’s case he played some of the best rugby of his career when he returned from overseas. It was the same with Percy Montgomery. Maybe Marius will do what Stefan did and play some of his best rugby over the age of 30.’

Certain measurables inevitably change with age, such as speed and explosiveness, but Joubert reckons that at the age of 31 he is returning to South Africa as a much more complete player than the one who played for the Springboks.

‘I still feel fast, but there are other things I have developed to make me more efficient and accurate in everything I do. Whereas in the past I used to do four or five good things and then make a mistake, hopefully you’ll find that now I have cut out those mistakes. I won’t be trying to create magic every time I get the ball, but I will be playing a more accurate kind of rugby, more error-free than it was before and also more solid on defence.

‘Speed is obviously a big factor for a backline player, and while I don’t feel I have lost speed, I have been working on ways to make sure my speed complements my game more. Being a smarter player is part of it, and I would say I’m a much more skilled player now than I was before.’

Joubert said in an interview with SA Rugby magazine last year that as long as he plays he will always be available for the Springboks. But that wasn’t what brought him back to South Africa.

‘Look, it’s a bonus that it’s a World Cup year, and after missing out on the last one, I would be delighted if I played well enough to somehow force my way in,’ he says. ‘But the timing of my return to South Africa is just coincidence, I certainly wasn’t thinking about the World Cup when I decided to come home. For me it’s now just the right time to return. I’m 31, and if I want to have any kind of rugby career back home before I retire, now is the time to make the move.

‘I’ve been in France for four seasons, and in that time I experienced many things and the team achieved a lot. We played in two [Top 14] finals, winning one of them, and we played in a semi-final. But there isn’t much more I can achieve or experience in France. I really enjoyed the first two or three seasons, and I’ve made great friends. Clermont is an unbelievably friendly city, but there comes a time when you just want to go home.

‘My son, MC [Marius Charl], is now a year old, and I want him to get to know his grandparents. I’ve only been back to South Africa a couple of times in the past four years, and only for two weeks in the past three years. Last year we didn’t go home in the off-season because our son had just been born. I miss my parents and my friends. So when the opportunity came up to play for the Sharks, it came at the right time.’

Joubert says the Sharks were one of the teams he had told his wife he would be prepared to play for if he was ever made an offer as he had always enjoyed their playing style and culture.

‘The Sharks are a well-known franchise throughout the world. When I tell people in France that I’m going to play for the Sharks I don’t have to explain what I’m talking about. I suppose it helps a bit that Frédéric Michalak has played for them and has just returned to Durban. They also play a style that I enjoy and that isn’t dissimilar to how the Stormers played when I was with them.

‘I watched the Sharks beat Western Province in the Currie Cup final last year and felt that their playing style would suit me. They have a good balance to their game. I got to know John Smit well from the time he spent playing for Clermont and also when we were both with the Boks, and we have kept in contact. When he said there might be an opportunity for me at the Sharks I was immediately interested.

‘It also helps that Durban has such mild winters and is known for its great climate. As much as I have enjoyed France, there were times when the winters got to me. Clermont is right in the middle of France, and it gets really cold in winter; last winter was particularly cold. That is one aspect of playing in France that I won’t miss with any sense of regret.’

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine. The August issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 27 July.