RYAN VREDE, in London, writes that Francois Louw has made the transition from competent Test openside flank to a world-class one who is indispensable to the Springboks’ cause.
At the outset of his tenure Heyneke Meyer rejected the notion that an international side with ambitions of dominating the game could achieve that end with a openside that was solely deployed to slow or steal breakdown ball. He argued that you need an all-rounder, equally adept at the aforementioned discipline as he is at carrying the ball effectively to and beyond the gainline.
In the absence of Schalk Burger, Marcell Coetzee fit the bill for Meyer. Prodigiously gifted, on form, abrasive, energetic and possessing a degree of mongrel that Burger would approve of, Coetzee was the right selection. That is, the right selection in the context of Meyer’s reservations about looking beyond the borders of South Africa for a candidate.
Louw had excelled in his first season at Bath, earning plaudits from England’s most respected observers, many of whom wondered in their broadsheet and website columns and on their radio and television shows why Louw was not in the Springboks frame. Some were incredulous, Stuart Barnes among them. ‘Louw can be as good as McCaw,’ he waxed.
Coetzee acquitted himself well against England and in the early rounds of the Rugby Championship, but he was undoubtedly raw, requiring further education in the subtleties of a position he is unfamiliar with (he had spent most of his career at No 8). Meyer had a great appreciation for Louw’s ability when he took the job, but solving his openside problem with a foreign-based solution didn’t sit comfortably. However, Louw has, on the strength of his performances, more than any advanced the cause of Europe-based players.
To single out a player in a game that operates on the cause and effect principle as strongly as rugby does is sometimes dangerous. When the Springboks have been physical and accurate at the gainline on defence, Louw has shone. But even when they haven’t his influence has not been so significantly diluted that he becomes anonymous in this facet of play. He shares this ability with McCaw and is learning to push the boundaries in the manner the All Blacks’ irrepressible skipper does.
And while it would be remiss to credit his transition for good to very good on his northern exposure (there is something to be said for the natural rise in potency of gifted young players like Louw who have yet to peak) entirely, it has played a significant role in shaping the player we now see.
‘I’ve got to give credit to the guys at Bath. I played under Sir Ian McGeechan last year and added different dimensions to my game. This year under Gary Gold and his staff has been equally educational,’ he told keo.co.za. ‘You try and pick up things as you go along and add that to your skills base. I’m happy it’s got me back with the Boks. The Springboks were and will always be No 1 for me.
‘The game has changed. More players are now looking to play abroad. Of course its important to keep players in South Africa, but there is value for international coaches looking at players based abroad.’
Meyer was liberal in his praise of Louw, but tempered that by pointing out that he was in superior physical condition given that the northern hemisphere’s season is in its infancy. Still, he was bold in saying: ‘He is up there with the best in the world at this stage.
‘I thought he was brilliant and has been every single game he has played. The thing I like about him is that while he is very, very good on the ground, he can also carry and break the line. He forces guys back in defence because he is quick despite being 112kg and very powerful. In the last three or four matches he has been close to the Man of the Match every time.’
The strength of the Springboks’ defence at present is not incidental. Louw’s contributions at ground zero have been telling in allowing his defensive line to set. He forced a penalty on his 5m line when Scotland looked like scoring a try just before half-time. It was, in light of what would unfold in the second half, an absolutely vital moment in the context of the result. With the Springboks relying so heavily on defence to win matches, Louw’s importance cannot be overstated.
Louw will be pushed hard in the years ahead when Burger returns from injury, if Coetzee develops in the manner he is expected to and if Heinrich Brussow can stay fit and rekindle the form that made him the world’s best openside in 2009. This is a healthy situation and hopefully inspires Louw to elevate his play.
This Test season will not be remembered fondly by the Springboks and their supporters, but it should be noted that it is the one Louw came of age as a Test player.