Eye on the prize

Watch out Adi, Jaque Fourie wants his No 13 jersey back.

jfJaque Fourie sits on a concrete slab next to the Lions’ training field, wipes his face with a towel, has a sip of water and starts chatting to the make-up artist.

While most of Fourie’s team-mates left straight after their afternoon practice session, some have stayed behind for an ice bath or a chat. ‘Hopefully they’ll think it’s sun cream,’ says the 26-year-old as the first dollops of white make-up are applied to his face, but the words are barely out of his mouth before the chirping begins.

‘Joost, Joost,’ one of the players chants, in reference to the former Bok scrumhalf’s sex-tape scandal. ‘Are you a model or a rugby player?’ asks another, before someone else yells ‘Hey, superstar!’ at the top of his voice.

Fourie handles the abuse well, resisting the urge to tell his team-mates that magazine photo shoots come with the territory when you’re a big-name Springbok.

Once the make-up has been applied, Fourie takes off his practice bib and gets dressed in Lions match kit. He then reaches into his bag and pulls out a No 22 Springbok jersey – the one he wore against Scotland at Murrayfield last November when he scored the match-winning try as a replacement winger.

That number seems strangely out of place considering the calibre of player. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Fourie was celebrating the Boks’ World Cup win wearing jersey 13. But three unrelated injuries allowed Adrian Jacobs to win 11 Test caps in 2008, while a frustrated Fourie watched events unfold on television.

When the photo shoot is finished 40 minutes later, Fourie and I sit on the steps that link the Lions’ training field to the parking lot of Johannesburg Stadium. At first, he chooses his words carefully and avoids too much eye contact, but as he relaxes so he opens up and smiles (showing a perfect set of teeth no longer covered by braces).

We start by discussing his injury-ravaged 2008 season. While you wouldn’t blame Fourie for feeling bitter at the turn of events that saw him lose his place in the Bok starting XV, he prefers to focus on the positives.

‘I think the rest did me good,’ he says. ‘I had played three seasons of non-stop rugby before I got injured, and by taking a break last year I’ve probably added another two or three years to my career. I know some of the Boks suffered from a World Cup hangover and struggled to motivate themselves for Super 14 training. I obviously never went through that, and because I spent so much time away from the game, and was able to clear my mind, I’m really lus to play. I was still able to gym a lot last year – except when my elbow was hurt – so I’m as strong, fit and fast as I was before. My body fat is 7.1% at the moment [early in the Super 14] and it was 6.9% at the World Cup when I was at my peak.’

Fourie’s time away from the game also allowed him to get other aspects of his life in order.

‘I was able to focus on things like my love life and managing my properties, which I tend to neglect when rugby’s my No 1 priority. I owe a lot to Kelly-Rae [Liebenberg], my fiancée, who helped me through last year. Injured players tend to be big babies – we need to be looked after a lot – and she was great. The rest of my family were also very supportive.’

They had to be, considering Fourie played just 646 minutes of rugby and 12 matches (six starts) in 2008. A groin operation – which doctors said he should have had before the World Cup – ruled him out of most of the Super 14, with 55 minutes of Vodacom Cup action preceding his return against the Chiefs and Stormers. An elbow injury then saw him miss the June Tests against Wales and Italy as well as the Tri-Nations tour, allowing Jacobs to stake his claim in the Bok midfield. Fourie returned to the Bok set-up for the one-off Test against Argentina only to fracture his right cheekbone during a clash of heads with Pumas winger José Piossek, just six minutes after coming on as a replacement.

‘It was a long drive from Ellis Park to the hospital in Sandton,’ Fourie recalls. ‘I was in serious pain but all I could think about were the Tri-Nations matches I was going to miss. It was really terrible.’

Fortunately, Fourie made a relatively quick recovery. He started the last three games of the Lions’ Currie Cup campaign and was picked for the Boks’ end-of-year tour. Peter de Villiers, though, opted to retain Jacobs at 13, with Fourie coming on as a second-half replacement in all three Tests. While Fourie’s game time was limited to a total of 67 minutes, he still managed to make a statement, scoring that try against Scotland and another at Twickenham.

Fourie was satisfied with his efforts on tour, but he desperately wants to be back in the Bok starting XV and, more specifically, in jersey 13.

‘I’ll always be happy to play anywhere the Boks want me – centre, wing or fullback,’ he says. ‘I’m a utility back and I regard my versatility as a strength. But I would prefer to play outside centre and if I do well for the Lions in this year’s Super 14 things should take care of themselves.’

However, Fourie may have a tougher battle on his hands than he thinks. Jacobs was arguably the Boks’ best back in the Tri-Nations – a constant threat on attack and surprisingly solid in defence – and having played under Peter de Villiers at the Falcons, he has an excellent relationship with the Bok coach. It’s also worth remembering that we live in South Africa, and that if a choice has to be made between a talented white player and a talented black one, the coach is supposed to pick the latter for transformation reasons.

Fourie, though, doesn’t want to get caught up in all this speculation.

‘Adrian did really well for the Boks last year, which was great for him and the team, but I back myself to get back into the side. We are different players in that he is short and stocky and I’m tall and lean, but we both like to attack the advantage line and are good defenders. It may be a cliché, but I think the competition is good for us and we will both have to raise our game this season.’

Another trait Fourie and Jacobs share is their tendency to obey their instincts and rely on what works for them, rather than overanalysing things and looking for ways to improve.

‘I’m not a big thinker,’ says Fourie. ‘I hated studying at school and nothing’s changed! I’m not the type of player who will study his game and come up with different strategies … I just go out there and play. Even when the team has video sessions I don’t pay too much attention. However, if a coach tells me to go out and play a certain way, I will. I always follow the game plan.’

Fourie certainly did that when Jake White – a big believer of structure – was Bok coach, although he and fellow midfielder Jean de Villiers were still given room to be creative. The two first played together in a Mandela Plate match against the Wallabies in Johannesburg – one the Boks won convincingly – and went on to establish a successful partnership that was tragically broken 44 minutes into the World Cup when De Villiers was injured.

‘Jean is a great player, with an excellent rugby brain and feel for the game,’ says Fourie. ‘Before he got hurt at the World Cup, we had reached the point where I knew what he was going to do on the field and when he was going to do it. So when he broke away I was always there in support.

‘We’ve also become really great friends, although we’re rivals when the Lions play the Stormers or Western Province. In the week leading up to a game, I’ll send him an SMS and warn him to watch out, because I’m going to run over him! There have been times when he’s been trapped at the bottom of a ruck and I’ve pinched him and he’s laughed. So we don’t take each other too seriously!’

The Jean-Jaque centre partnership flourished under White despite the Bok coach’s preference for a more conservative game plan. So what does Fourie think of Peter de Villiers’s desire for his players to express themselves on the field and throw the ball around a bit more?

‘The Boks started the season wanting to play a more expansive game, to play it as they see it. But I’m a big fan of structure. If there’s no structure in a team then everything falls apart. That’s how South Africans are. We want to play three or four structured phases and then attack if the situation allows it. On the end-of-year tour, we didn’t always play that way and almost lost to Wales and Scotland. We changed our approach for England and destroyed them. I’m confident we’ll play that way again against the [British & Irish] Lions, because it clearly works for us.’

Fourie believes that a Lions tour is the biggest rugby event outside the World Cup, and hopes to test himself against Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll, regarded by most in the northern hemisphere as the best outside centre in the business.

‘I’ve only played against Brian once, when the Springboks beat Ireland in Cape Town in 2004,’ says Fourie. ‘I rate him extremely highly – he runs well with the ball, has excellent vision and he’s been an excellent ambassador for the sport. But I don’t want it to sound like I’m polishing his balls. I back myself against him.’

Just like he backs himself to get his Bok jersey back.

By Simon Borchardt

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