Scrutinising Spies

RYAN VREDE asks whether, 50 Tests into his career, Pierre Spies is the player he should be?

Pierre Spies’ half century of Test caps came and went without him being particularly impressive in Port Elizabeth. This has been his predominant state. Neither outstanding nor woeful. I’ve written before that I believe he is trapped in a maze of mediocrity in a Springbok shirt, and in three Tests against England he did little to challenge this view.

No incompetent player plays 50 Tests (although Ricky Januarie came close with 47), so it is not entirely a question of his aptitude, rather what he has delivered measured against expectation. Whose expectation? The answer here is three-fold. It is partly self-created through his form early in his career and at stages thereafter. Secondly all three Springbok coaches he has played under have unfailingly selected him and justified their faith consistently. Then there is the expectation created by his physical constitution and athletic gifts, which trumps any of his counterparts in world rugby.

There are factors that cannot be discounted when trying to answer this question. He spent most of his formative years as a winger and was only converted to an eighthman in 2005. He has effectively been forced to learn in the toughest environments in the game – Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations. That he has reached the milestone he has speaks volumes about his talent and adaptability.

I’ve interviewed Spies more times than I can remember but the one that endures in my memory came in 2009. I asked him who the best No 8 in the world was. He said when he plays to his potential, he is. ‘I believe I have something special because I’m unlike most No 8s in terms of my pace, and my experience as a backline player gives me a better understanding of how to link with them and about attacking lines in the backline,’ he offered.

There was nothing arrogant about the tone of that statement, simply a level of self-belief that was impressive and inspiring. Spies also spoke honestly about his shortcomings, most notably his inability to consistently impose himself when the game is tight.

Herein, in my view, lies the reason Spies has been a beautiful letdown. He lacks a degree of mongrel that would amplify his threat and elevate him to the level of man he should measure himself against – Kieran Read. Read stands alone as the pre-eminent No 8 in the game. Nobody is even close. With Richie McCaw’s influence waning, Read has become the fulcrum of the All Blacks’ pack – the man who sets the standards of brutality, physicality and industry. My frustration with Spies is that he should be this for the Springboks but isn’t.

Keen to establish his view on this issue, I asked Spies on Saturday evening whether he was happy with the player he is after 50 Tests. ‘The older you get the more you realise you need to change your game,’ he began. ‘If I look at the player I am now I’m definitely not as brutal as I was when I was younger, but I am a lot cleverer and tougher and wiser. Your game definitely changes and you need to adapt.

‘When you are a youngster, people are not aware of you. After 50 Tests they are and that makes your challenge bigger. The game has changed and defences have become much better. The guys are aware of your strengths, they call you by name. Teams tend to kick a little less on me now when I drop back and I haven’t had the space and time I had early in my career.’

This is in line with what Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer told me in an informal chat a couple of weeks ago. The Bulls and Springboks have relied on Spies’ dynamism when they forced the opposition to punt on Spies through pressure defence. In the absence of the space and time that offers him, Spies’ potency has been significantly diluted.

So what now for the 27-year-old? Is he a lost cause destined never to reach his potential at Test level? I believe the last hope of avoiding that eventuality is Meyer’s tactical intelligence and inspirational influence on Spies. There is no doubt he has played his best rugby under his long time mentor and Meyer alone can rouse his student to a level of performance that meets expectations. That expectation is high for a reason. We’ve seen glimpses of the player Spies can be and it excites.

Follow Ryan on Twitter
Follow SA Rugby magazine on Twitter