Insider: Fourie du Preez
The recent recall of Fourie du Preez to the Springbok squad should not have been as a big a shock as it seems to have been to some people.
After all, Du Preez, the premier scrumhalf in the country since 2004, has built a status as possibly the best halfback in the world in his time. He has an excellent rugby brain and with a World Cup, Super Rugby and several other titles behind his name, has a wealth of experience that few would come close to.
Yet it seems that some people in South Africa are only too willing to turn their back on one of the greatest players of all time. Despite Bok coach Heyneke Meyer pleading his case about Du Preez's experience and his influence on his fellow teammates, there are still a few who cannot understand the decision.
But those who know Du Preez know all too well how his career ended. Struggling with a niggling injury during the 2011 World Cup, the halfback fought his way back to fitness, and was slowly regaining his form until that inevitable day in Wellington when Bryce Lawrence’s whistle ended the Bok campaign.
It was clear the halfback was not in his best space at that time, and while many follow the yen for the money, Du Preez went for a different reason – to spend time with mentor Eddie Jones and to unlock some of the secrets of coaching, looking ahead to a new career once his playing days are over.
It was at the beginning of Meyer’s tenure as Bok coach that he mooted a return for Du Preez to a very young Bok squad. Experience is vital at international level, and Du Preez has oodles of that. Also, he understands the way Meyer thinks, so it seemed sensible for Du Preez to make his return to the green and gold.
But club commitments, his own conscience and a desire to see Bok rugby move on up, prevented Du Preez from making a return. It seemed as if his international career was something of the past. But just as quickly as some forgot him, the scrumhalf's hopes of a return to international rugby were reignited – thanks to his friend and teammate George Smith.
Smith’s return to international rugby almost saved Robbie Deans’s job as Wallaby coach and it certainly helped Jake White’s Brumbies head to the Vodacom Super Rugby final. The Wallaby flanker’s new lease on life is attributed to the way he is managed in Japan, and his return to form has been a massive factor both in Meyer and Du Preez’s thinking.
Du Preez said that Smith’s return had been a major influence. Plus, the space where he finds himself now, 12 months later, is a lot different to the last time Meyer came calling.
“I thought last year that Heyneke should rather look at the talent coming through – the locally based players and younger players in the position. Heyneke had a look at a few guys like Hougi and others, and there was also things that happened that was beyond his control – some of the players got injured. There was an opportunity for them, and Heyneke felt it was time for me to have a chance again,” Du Preez told supersport.com
“That’s the one part of it. I always said I’d help if they needed me and things could get sorted out with my club. The big thing that changed was me. I had a good four-month break now and in my time in Japan, I thought about my rugby career a lot.
“I realised I can only play for another two, two and a half years. George Smith told me that if you love rugby as much as I do, then you should play as much as you can. I want to play, it doesn’t matter for who. If I get an opportunity to play now, I’ll be over the moon.”
Du Preez is philosophical about the last 12 months. He believes if he had played in 2012, he would have done the Bok jersey “an injustice”. It is precisely this attitude that has shaped his career – putting the team first, not chasing money, glory or fame. Du Preez at his best has never been motivated by anything other than helping his team achieve their goals.
“Last year I had just finished a long break and I didn’t feel my rugby was at the right standard to play for the Springboks. I didn’t want to do injustice to the Springbok jersey at the time. My last game for the Boks was the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against Australia and it was my best game in 2011. I felt I was on my way back to form at that level but unfortunately we didn’t have the option of another week or two,” he explains.
“It’s strange how life works. I never knew the level of training and of the games in Japan and I feel the move has done me well.”
HUNGER FOR THE GAME
And whatever was said from the outside, Du Preez has never lost his hunger for the game. But now he has a secondary goal: to use this time to ensure the next generation of scrumhalves are equipped to bring the Boks glory.
“I still want to play at a higher level. Wherever I play, whether it be for the Boks, for Suntory or the Bulls, I will always have the hunger to win. I want to be the type of player who helps those around me. I really want to help those young players around me.
“There hasn’t been a young No 9 that has established himself yet at the Boks and hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to help a youngster and play that role of mentor. I still believe I can make a contribution and help other players as well. Wherever Heyneke wants to use me, I am happy to help and hopefully it can contribute to the success of Springbok rugby.”
Du Preez is honest when he says there is a perception about Japanese rugby that is wrong. It is generally assumed that the standard there is low, and that the Boks would be hampered by this.
But he has found it to be the opposite. The professionalism is unrivalled, and the lesser workload is essential for players to prolong their careers, something those who plan Super Rugby could well take note of if they want to ensure the future success of the competition.
“People who criticise Japanese rugby are the ones who haven’t seen the league and the standard of rugby there. It is a perception that is around and people tend to believe it. George showed just how beneficial playing in Japan can be for a player.
“The level of rugby is a lot higher than a lot of people believe. It was a big surprise for me when I got to Japan when I saw the level of rugby and the level of professionalism that those clubs operate under.
“George’s success did make me think, and reminded me how much I enjoyed playing at a higher level. He is a world class player and could easily be rated as the best flanker in the last 10 or 15 years. It made me think about playing again, and the opportunities that you have to play, you need to take them.
“In two or three years I won’t be able to play again and then you don’t want regrets.”
Du Preez believes the problem with the Japanese club system can be overcome. With overseas-based Boks becoming an ever-bigger reality for SA Rugby, it would be in the Boks’ favour to find a solution. The problem is that with a maximum of 20 games in the Japanese season, the Castle Rugby Championship clashes with the opening six fixtures.
It is understandable that clubs aren’t keen to release players for a third of the season. But as Smith and Du Preez have shown, there is a way. Even though Du Preez is available for only three games, it is better than nothing, and the same negotiations can help the Boks get a valuable asset such as Jaque Fourie back.
“Every Japanese club is different, just like the Bulls are different to the Lions. Every club has its own dynamics. This is the reason why I play at Suntory – I feel I’m part of the most professional club that I’ve ever played at in my life. They do things very differently and there is a reason we have only lost one game in the last two years. We do things differently to the other clubs in Japan. It shows you can’t generalise and say all the clubs are the same,” du Preez said.
“I know a guy like Jaque Fourie wants desperately to play for the Springboks again, and I believe he will still play for the Boks again. The way they work, you need to have an honest, open and forthright relationship with them and you need to keep your end of the agreement. This is also why I’m not playing all the games. I want to keep them happy, I want to do what is best for them and for the Boks.”
For now, the halfback is simply looking at these three games to see where he can play a role in Meyer’s squad.
“I’m not looking too far in the future. I’m only looking now at these games that I’m available for. I’m thankful my club has been good enough to release me and give me the opportunity.
“I know that I’m the only South African player that is allowed by their club to play international rugby. It says a lot for the club that the two overseas players they have – George and me – they allow us both to play international rugby.
"I know Heyneke spoke about a 'long-term vision' but for me I’m only looking at these few games and hopefully I can prove myself as a valuable asset to the team. It is testing the waters for both of us, and hopefully it goes well. All I’m looking to do is play my part and help the team in these tests and then we will look further ahead.”
Those who remember the 2007 World Cup and Du Preez’s influence on the Boks' winning campaign know exactly how devastating he can be when he is in form. Determined and resolute, Du Preez has got his hunger for international rugby back again.
The Boks would be fools not to use it.