International Rugby, Opinions, Springboks

Fourie du Preez SA’s greatest scrumhalf, and Conor Murray his international opponent

Mark Keohane, in his post 1992 Springboks and World XV #DreamTeam, selects the respective South African and international No 9s who made the biggest impression on him during his rugby writing career.

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If picking Jonah Lomu and Bryan Habana as my left wings were easy decisions, then the selection of Fourie du Preez was the quickest one I made when it came to backline players since 1992.

Du Preez was comfortably the best in the world when playing for the Springboks. When you look at many of the other Springbok scrumhalves since 1992, they weren’t always considered the best in South Africa, let alone the world.

Du Preez had every quality in a world-class scrumhalf and he was the backline general and master tactician in the Springboks’ 2007 World Cup title-winning campaign.

Du Preez’s rugby intelligence, at No 9, was unmatched among South African scrumhalves and right up there with the best No 9s to have ever played the game.

Traditionally, with France being the exception, it is the No 10 who controls a match, how it is played, where it is played in terms of field position, and general game management.

Du Preez was exceptional when it came to keeping his rampant pack on the front foot. His line kicking game was, at times, extraordinary, and in 2009 the Du Preez hoist and the Habana chase was the most potent double attack strategy in world rugby.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, in his autobiography, says he seriously doubted the All Blacks would ever find a way to counter the Du Preez kick and Habana chase.

‘They just executed it so well,’ McCaw said of Du Preez’s kick and Habana’s chase. The Springboks, in 2009, beat the All Blacks three times in succession, twice in South Africa and the third time in Hamilton, New Zealand to win the Tri Nations.

McCaw, who lost just 15 times in 148 Tests, rated the 2009 Boks as the best team he ever played against, and Du Preez’s calm and precision as among the finest among opposition playmakers.

Former Springboks coach Jake White loved everything he saw in Fourie du Preez when he coached him at under 21 level. White, who picked Du Preez and Ricky Januarie as his scrumhalves for most of his Springbok coaching tenure, said he had never coached a Bok player of Du Preez’s intelligence when it came to approach, game management and decision-making. England and former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, who was the Springboks Technical Specialist and adviser to White at the 2007 World Cup, was as complimentary of Du Preez. Jones also signed Du Preez to play in Japan in 2012, but consistently encouraged Heyneke Meyer to take Du Preez to the 2015 World Cup; something Meyer would do when he persuaded Du Preez to come out of international retirement in 2013.

Jones, in an interview with SA Rugby Magazine’s Jon Cardinelli at the 2015 World Cup, said of Du Preez: ‘I don’t think he should have retired from Test rugby after the 2011 World Cup. He is the world’s best. Fourie’s ability to come out of the ruck, to know whether to hit the short runner or go wide, is superb. He didn’t (in 2015) have the electric pace he had in 2007, but his ability to control the game remains first-class,’ said Jones. ‘It is like having a coach on the field. If you watch the NFL and you see the quarterbacks, they run the team. The coach might be sending them the info, but they are the ones who tell everyone what to do on the field. To me, Fourie is like that. He is the best decision-making halfback I have coached.

Bear in mind, Jones coached Australian 139-Test great George Gregan.

Du Preez is as flattering about Jones and it is his view that had Eddie Jones not been involved, the Boks would not have won the 2007 World Cup.

Du Preez also rated Jones as the best coach in world rugby.

‘If it was not for Eddie, we would not have won the World Cup (in 2007). At the end of the World Cup the players insisted that Eddie be given a Springbok blazer. He was not initially given a blazer because he was listed as a consultant.

‘There’s always politics in South African rugby, but he was part of our team, 100 percent. Whether he wanted the blazer or not, was not the issue. He deserved it.’

Jones aside, the applause from all international coaches followed Du Preez throughout his Test career, with a consistent theme being their praise for his ability to ‘shape a game to his side’s requirements’. Those who had interacted with Du Preez also spoke of his ‘acute understanding of the game and one of the keenest and most inquisitive students of rugby’.

Heyneke Meyer, who coached Du Preez at the Bulls and Springboks, lauded the No 9 as a ‘tactical genius’ and the ‘most astute player’ he had ever coached.

‘I will always pick him,’ said Meyer.

The Fourie du Preez/Joost van der Westhuizen debate is one that always brings a host of different opinions, but those who coached both players have always declared Du Preez the one they would pick first.

Du Preez says he would select Van der Westhuizen and shortly after the latter’s death (because of Motor Neuron Disease), he said Van der Westhuizen, as a mentor and as a scrumhalf, was the best in Springbok history.

‘In my opinion he is the best scrumhalf in Springbok history and ranks up there with the best of his generation along with George Gregan, Justin Marshall and Fabien Galthie. I have the world of respect for him.’

Van der Westhuizen, in his prime, was spectacular, but I have always described him as the finest athlete to play for the Boks since 1992, if not necessarily the finest scrumhalf. Joost had everything athletically and his 38 Test tries is a testament to his strike rate and danger as an attacking scrumhalf. He could also tackle and the one rare defensive lapse was when the Welsh strongman Scott Gibbs gave him a hand-off en-route to scoring.

Joost could make something out of nothing and his try against England at Twickenham remains one of the most breathtaking individual scores. I picked Dan Carter over Beauden Barrett because Carter was the complete package as No 10, whereas Barrett was the complete athletic package, wherever he played in the backline.

I applied a similar thinking to Du Preez and Joost. Du Preez, having started 62 of his 76 Tests, is South Africa’s Carter and Joost was New Zealand’s Barrett.

Du Preez and Joost would appear to have dominated Springbok scrumhalf play, but Ruan Pienaar is another scrumhalf who would hold his own in any era. Pienaar, who is still playing for the Cheetahs, was at his most influential in the years he played for Ulster. He is an iconic rugby figure in Belfast and was equally good when playing two seasons at Montpellier in France.

It says everything about his ageless quality that he could return to South Africa in 2019 and be a star for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup. Pienaar may be 36 years-old but he still has the goods and in 2020 he is still the best player in the Cheetahs Pro 14 squad.

Pienaar’s versatility meant he played fullback, wing, flyhalf and scrumhalf for the Springboks but playing in the Du Preez years also forced him to make an impact from the bench in 43 of his 88 Tests.

Pienaar, now at the Cheetahs, has played 330 first class matches, including 141 for Ulster, 67 for the Sharks and 28 for Montpellier.

If Pienaar could be deemed unfortunate because of the presence of Fourie du Preez, then spare a thought for Ricky Januarie, whose playing career dovetailed with Du Preez’s and Pienaar’s.

Januarie was the most underrated of Springbok scrumhalves and took a lot of criticism for his physical appearance. His conditioning, or lack thereof at times, was a constant theme in his career, especially when he played in South Africa, but his class could never be called into question.

Januarie’s most incredible individual moment was his show and go to embarrass All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu, his break from the base of the ruck, his chip kick, gather and swallow dive to score one of the most memorable tries against the All Blacks in New Zealand at the old Carisbrook Stadium in Dunedin in 2008. Frans Steyn added the two points from the conversion and the Bok beat the All Blacks 30-28.

Januarie started 30 of his 47 Tests between 2005 and 2010, but it says everything about his quality that in 2020, into his 39th year, he is still playing professional rugby in France in a first-class career that has totaled in excess of 300 matches.

Januarie’s career is so interesting and he has played for Western Province, the Stormers, the Golden Lions, the Lions, the Cats, the Ospreys, Lyon, La Rochelle and Agen in France, where he has spent the past 10 years.

Robert du Preez and Garth Wright were the two leading scrumhalves in South Africa when the Springbok returned to international rugby in 1992. Their best years were over by then and Joost and Transvaal’s John Roux and Cheetahs’ Werner Swanepoel would be the regular Springbok No 9 faces for the next decade.

Neil de Kock, who played just 10 Tests, would enjoy his best years when playing 250 matches for Saracenes in 10 years and Craig Davidson and Bolla Conradie were very good scrumhalves who could have played more Tests had it not been for the quality of those ahead of them in the pecking order.

The current 2019 World Cup-winning crop are all very talented in Faf de Klerk, Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach and all three have a lot of Test rugby left.

But the three combined aren’t as good as Du Preez in his totality, which is not meant to insult the trio but rather to compliment Du Preez.

WATCH: DU PREEZ CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Internationally, I have seen some super No 9s. The Wallabies trio of Nick Farr Jones (63 Tests), George Gregan (139) and Will Genia (110) had an ownership of the Australian No 9 jersey. Farr Jones, who led the Wallabies to the World Cup in 1991, retired after a home series win against the Springboks in 1993. I would love to have seen more of him live.

Gregan was a star and Genia was very similar to Gregan in his influence on world rugby.

The All Blacks, in Justin Marshall and Aaron Smith, also had a duo with whom one associates the All Blacks and halfbacks since 1992.

England’s Dewi Morris, Matt Dawson, Danny Care and Ben Youngs commanded an international presence between 1992 and 2020 and Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw and Wales’s Rob Howley, Dwayne Peel and Mike Phillips were very good No 9s, if very different in their style of play. It surprised me when Gregan picked Howley as his starting No 9 in his #Perfect XV.

The fiery Irish halfback Peter Stringer boxed above his weight throughout an illustrious 98-Test career and Argentina’s Augustin Pichot was feisty, aggressive and a street fighter when it came to leading the Pumas. Alessandro Troncon, with 101 Tests, was also the heartbeat of Italy.

Watching the French play invariably meant watching a different scrumhalf every second or third Test every season. No international Test selectors ever mixed, matched, loved or hated as much as the French wise men did when it came to selecting their scrumhalves, who so often were on a par with each other. But the one who stood out to me was the 2002 World Rugby Player of the Year and current French coach Fabian Galthie, who previously coached Toulon.

Former French coach Bernard Laporte, who recommended Galthie to succeed him as coach of Toulon, described Galthie as the best scrumhalf in the history of French rugby and he would have found support in those hailing Galthie as one of the best in the world.

Galthie, for those who may not know, also spent a few months playing for False Bay and Western Province in the very early stages of his career. Galthie’s 62 Test appearances included four World Cup tournaments and the famous 43-31 1999 World Cup semi-final win against the All Blacks at Twickenham.

As good as Galthie was, the player who gets my World XV vote for his impact and impression is Ireland’s Conor Murray, who from 2016 to 2018 had no equal in the game.

Murray, in partnership with flyhalf Jonny Sexton, was the driving force behind Ireland’s march to a first ever world No 1 ranking. Murray was massive for the British & Irish Lions in the 1-all drawn series against the All Blacks in 2017 and when Ireland won big in the past decade it was usually on the back of a big Conor Murray performance. His kicking from the base of the scrum was second only to Du Preez’s, his goalkicking is an additional strength and his physicality makes him the perfect fit for my World Dream Team starting XV.

WATCH: CONOR MURRAY IN ACTION

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6 thoughts on “Fourie du Preez SA’s greatest scrumhalf, and Conor Murray his international opponent

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  2. Kelvin Abrahams says:

    Joost was a hero of mine. His desire to win. He never knew when he was defeated and to be honest he seldom was. It seemed like Joost could win the game all by himself. But that’s why I agree with Mark and believe Fourie (or vuurhoutjie as he was affectionately known) was the better scrummie. He made everyone around him better and used those resources around him better. He was a thinking man and knew how to get the best out of himself, team mates, conditions and how to exploit the opposition’s weaknesses.

    Internationally I can’t dispute Murray’s claim to the thrown. Very similar to Fourie Du Preez in my opinion. I credit him with the Lions tour to NZ success and the Irish success over the All Blacks as well. I had players I admired like Pichot, Galthie, Gregan and Howley. And of course Justin Marshall!

    Fourie Du Preez vs Conor Murray it is for me too

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