Spies can lay platform for another 50
It hasn’t been an easy path for Pierre Spies to his 50th cap for the Springboks, which he claims on Saturday in the third and final test against England at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium here in wintry Port Elizabeth.
Others may have forgotten but Spies hasn’t that it all started with the ignominy of a 49-0 defeat in Brisbane way back in 2006, a game that will be forever etched not only on his mind but also on those of the Bok fans who sat through the 80 minutes of complete and abject misery.
He was just 21 then, but even at that young age Spies showed the determination that has seen him through many daunting obstacles. Just a few matches after that horrible first taste of the green and gold, Spies found himself in the unfamiliar position of openside flank for a test match against New Zealand in Rustenburg.
The Sword of Damocles was hanging over coach Jake White at the time, and it was desperate times for the Boks. Who knows, had the Boks lost that game in Rustenburg, White might have been axed and the World Cup triumph of 2007 may never have happened. But the young Spies played out of his skin, and the Boks edged home through a last minute penalty from Andre Pretorius, with Spies named as man of the match.
The following season he re-established himself as the starting No 8, only to have his hope of a place in the World Cup squad snatched from him by a potentially life-threatening blood disease that threatened to end his career there and then. The memory of that time makes the build-up to his 50th one that Spies may cherish even more than other players who come through to notch their half-century for South Africa.
“This is certainly a big high point in my career if you consider where I came from a few years ago when I had that illness,” said Spies.
“At the time I thought I might never play rugby again, let alone play for the Springboks. But here I am six years later and I am very thankful to the players and the coaches who have helped me, and the Lord for bringing me back when I thought there might not be a return. If you compare the point where I am now with where I was then, then it makes Saturday a special experience.”
The point where he is now may be one of relative comfort for Spies in comparison to where he has been in recent years. There have been long periods where he has appeared to lack form, and towards the end of Peter de Villiers’s time as coach there was constant speculation he would be dropped after several anonymous performances.
Indeed, he may well have been axed were it not for the injury that ruled Duane Vermeulen out of World Cup consideration, and he probably wouldn’t be featuring in this series had it not been for the knee injury that has forced the big Stormers No 8 into a spectators role over the past two months. It is understood that Spies’s star had waned a bit for Bok coach Heyneke Meyer, who was considering other options.
However Vermeulen’s injury and the absence of other experienced forwards made it hard for Spies, with his then 47 caps, to be left out, and he has responded to the challenge of proving himself again to his old provincial coach by grabbing the opportunity with both hands.
While much of the positive vibe around the performance of the Springbok back row over the past two Saturdays has centreed on the Sharks flankers Marcell Coetzee and Willem Alberts, Spies has also been a constant presence and thorn in the side of England as a ball carrier and with a much improved overall work-rate.
With the Bok forwards dominating at stages of both tests, Spies has come into his own, but even when they haven’t been he has been making the contributions that might force those who considered him an irrelevance when the solid forward platform is not present to think again. Vermeulen is due to return to the playing field soon and should be available for The Rugby Championship, but Spies has been good enough to suggest he should be there to begin the second half of his quest for a century of test caps.
“It’s been an amazing journey for me, starting with that debut where we were thumped 49-0. That is something I will never forget, and how could I. Then came the illness and missing the World Cup but then came the win over the British and Irish Lions and a Tri-Nations win. I have a lot of gratitude for those who made it possible to happen and I am just very grateful.”
Spies’s role has changed at the Bulls, where he is now the captain after the departure of Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez, and as one of the senior players and a franchise captain he provides back-up leadership to Bismarck du Plessis and Jean de Villiers at Springbok level. However, he says he is pleased to be playing test rugby without the responsibility of the captaincy.
“We joke about how different the back of the bus is now that so many senior players have gone, and my role has definitely changed in that I am very involved now in helping set up the structures for defence and the lineouts. I enjoy that, and I enjoy backing up Jean and Bizzy, but I am happy to be able to take a break from the pressures and responsibilities of captaincy.”