JON CARDINELLI writes the under-utilised and often unappreciated phenom that is Francois Louw will have a chance to prove a point in the coming weeks.
Two weeks ago, I sat face to face with South African rugby’s forgotten man. Francois Louw was in a typically laid back mood on a bright morning in Bath, and we chatted about everything from rare Nicaraguan coffee to David Pocock’s fetching technique.
The flanker talked at length about a rugby-mad town that would be demanding more of Bath in the 2012-13 season. He spoke about being a leader, about playing the best rugby of his life, and how he planned to change the collective mindset of the Springbok selectors.
‘If you play well enough, they can’t ignore you,’ he said at the time. ‘I want to play so well that they will have to say, “We can’t ignore this guy, we need him, we want him to come back”. If I ever got the call, I would pack that bag pretty quickly. That would be fantastic.’
They were hopeful words, but there was substance in Louw’s assertion that he was in the form of his life.
I subsequently bumped into Gary Gold, former Springbok forward coach and now Bath’s director of rugby, and he grew exceedingly animated in stating a case for Louw as a Bok starter. And as Gold said at the time, Louw wouldn’t be lacking for match sharpness if Heyneke Meyer revised his foreign policy and began a phone call with ‘+44′.
I decided to check things out for myself. Bath had enjoyed an unbeaten run in the pre-season, and their final warm-up fixture against the Cardiff Blues at The Rec promised to be entertaining. There was always going to be value in gauging Louw’s form in such a contest, as he would be competing against one of the premier openside flankers on the planet, namely Wales’ Sam Warburton.
It was a wet night in Bath and it didn’t surprise me to see the halfback pairing of Michael Claassens and Olly Barkley kicking for territory. What did surprise me was the brutal efficiency of Bath’s pack, and the manner in which Louw flourished as a result.
Warburton on the other hand, was a non-factor. Louw outplayed the Welsh openside for steals on the floor, and contributed powerfully around the park. When he eventually left the field the soaked but never silenced Bath faithful stomped on the wooden floorboards to show their appreciation.
It was meant to be a performance that would build confidence ahead of an important Premiership campaign. It was mission accomplished as far as the pre-season was concerned, although Louw would have felt that his mission to convince Meyer of his value was just about to begin.
At the start of his tenure, Meyer stated that he would not pick overseas-based players unless they were better than those based in South Africa. It was easy to ignore Louw at that stage, as Meyer was still hopeful of Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen recovering from their respective injuries. There were also youngsters like Marcell Coetzee and Siya Kolisi to consider, not to mention Heinrich Brüssow and Keegan Daniel.
Injuries have thwarted Meyers plans, and he has been forced to recall Louw. It would be false to say that the Bath openside has convinced Meyer of his value through a strong performance in the English pre-season. It would be more accurate to say that Meyer selected Louw for lack of another experienced openside option.
However, that doesn’t suggest that Louw cannot change Meyer’s mind with an influential showing in what remains of the Rugby Championship.
A year ago, he left for Bath knowing that he had jeopardised his position at the Springboks. Two weeks ago, he spoke as if Bath were his primary focus and as if he wasn’t expecting a Test recall.
But the 27 year old has always believed that he would wear the Bok jersey again. He was adamant that the Boks’ World Cup quarter-final loss to Australia would not be his final international act.
‘I do still think about that game, but to be honest with you, I’ve never watched it again,’ Louw said.
‘It felt like we were doing everything right but we weren’t getting paid dividends for it. We weren’t getting points on the board. It was very disappointing.
‘Having said that, it’s always going to go down as one of the greatest times in my life. To be involved with the Springboks at a World Cup, even with a disappointing exit like that, was amazing. Was that the last Test for me? I hope not. I’m 27 years old, and I don’t feel like I’ve reached a watershed. I believe that I’m playing the best rugby of my career.
‘I definitely don’t want to see that as my last go at it all. Like I’ve said to you, I want to keep improving, I want to reach a level where they can’t ignore me, where they want me to come back. No, I refuse to see that as my last act. I’m going to try and get back into the side. That’s not really in my hands, what is in my hands is playing the best rugby that I can.’
Nobody could have predicted the season-ending injury to Kolisi that would eventually force Meyer to contact Louw. That bag was packed very quickly, and as you read this, Louw should be preparing to play against Australia in Perth this Saturday.
Louw outplayed Warburton on that soggy night in Bath, and he should be expected to give the Boks an edge in what many will view as a World Cup rematch. The significant difference on this occasion is that Pocock, who is out for the rest of the Rugby Championship with an injury, won’t be playing.
Louw would have expected to watch this match on TV, but now he will be in the thick of it. It was interesting to get his take on the Pocock injury prior to his own Test recall.
‘Besides the breakdown, Pocock has a helluva work rate. It will be a substantial loss for Australia. I think that is something that New Zealand have already capitalised on a little bit.
‘He did very well against us in that World Cup quarter-final. His absence is something that South Africa should look to exploit [in Perth]. They have to be efficient in that area, but I’m sure whoever they put in there is going to be hungry to prove themselves.’
As fate would have it, Louw now has the chance to put these words into action.