A MUST READ. Fourie du Preez does some straight talking about Saru and SA rugby in general.
Ryan Vrede, SA Rugby Magazine
Japan has given Fourie du Preez back to the Springboks, not stolen him away. The decision to play for the Springboks again was one of the most difficult Fourie du Preez has had to make.
The widely-held presumption that it was easy is deeply flawed. He speaks of a ‘battle’ and when probed to explain, he offers his concerns about keeping his legacy intact and not tarnishing it in a way so many great athletes have before him by playing well beyond their best years. Jordan and Schumacher are sport’s best examples of men whose self-belief wasn’t matched by their aptitude in the twilight of their careers. Du Preez didn’t want to be added to this growing list of athletes.
Du Preez retired, yes retired, from Test rugby because he didn’t want to hold on for too long – like Muhammad Ali – and have the curtain brought down for him while he was hooked off stage. It is critical to understand that in Du Preez’s mind the World Cup quarter-final exit against Australia in 2011 was his last game for the Boks. He’d had a good run, established himself as the best No 9 in the game, perhaps of all time. He’d won every title he could, achieved every personal goal. There was nothing left.
‘I made peace with the fact that I’d never play for the Springboks again,’ Du Preez says. ‘I decided at the end of 2010 that I would move to Japan, so I started preparing myself for life without Test rugby as far back as then. That last game in Wellington was it for me.’
Then something changed. Du Preez’s departure for Japan was met with lamentation from the South African rugby fraternity. The reality is that Japan gave Du Preez back to the Springboks. At Suntory he rediscovered his love for the game and a competitive spirit that had been diminished by years and years of the grind that playing in South Africa had become and the ineptitude of the administrators at the Bulls and Saru.
His time with his young family increased exponentially and, having dealt with the guilt of being away from home for large portions of the formative years of his marriage and the early days of his child’s life, Du Preez was in the headspace to contemplate a Test future.
‘I was in a comfort zone in Pretoria – same friends, same food, same coaches, too much sameness. It only struck me how sheltered I’d been when I got to Japan. The food is a departure from what I was used to but it’s a journey of discovery I’ve really enjoyed.
‘The ease of transport is another thing; I often take the Metro to training and back. That would never be possible in South Africa. You become immersed in the culture more quickly when you become one of the masses. It’s a part of my day I look forward to. Then there’s the cutting-edge fashion. I’ve never been one for fashion, but I’ve been open to trying new things here.
‘I could go on and name a lot more things, but I’m sure you get the idea. These things may seem small and insignificant to a rugby career, but it has injected new energy and drive into me. I feel like I’ve become a new, better version of me. There are people out there who will relate to how an experience like this has a positive influence on their professional lives. I’m no different. If you’re happy in all areas of your life it is bound to reflect in your work.’
Still, this all wasn’t enough. He needed more convincing. Heyneke Meyer’s call for help didn’t come as a surprise. Meyer had been in touch in 2012. Du Preez was initially cold to the idea of a return for all the reasons that open this piece.
But inspiration came in the form of an old foe turned close friend. Du Preez and George Smith had engaged in a series of epic battles throughout their careers in the southern hemisphere, but had forged a solid bond at Suntory. Du Preez watched Smith’s Brumbies sojourn – ‘he was the best player in Super Rugby, for me’ – and sat transfixed as Smith made his final bow in Test rugby for Australia in the decider against the British & Irish Lions.
‘Watching George in Super Rugby and then seeing his performance in the third Test stirred something in me. Playing Test rugby against the world’s elite teams is the ultimate for me because the demands separate the good from the great.
‘George made a statement about his class in that third Test and I’d never lost the belief that I was the best nine around. In fact, playing in Japan has made me a better player, which is the opposite effect to what people thought it would have.
The game in Japan is faster than in the south and the pressure they exert on the breakdowns forces you to adapt your game. But mostly I realised that my intellectual growth had been stunted by being in the Bulls and Springbok environment for so long.
‘I was too closed to other ideas. I thought I knew the “right” way and those around me didn’t challenge me on that count. But working with [Suntory coach] Eddie Jones opened my mind to other methods and new dimensions of my talent. So I felt strongly that I had more to offer than I did when I left the Springboks. The battle within was about compromising my legacy. My belief and the reality may have been vastly different.’
It took 25 minutes at Soccer City for Du Preez to prove to himself and others that he belonged. Like Smith, Du Preez looked like he was in the environment he was crafted for. Formula One cars aren’t made for trips to the local grocer. You feel me? Ruan Pienaar has grown in stature, Jano Vermaak shows promise, but Du Preez, well, there’s an other-wordly feel about him. His swagger in the Calabash was undoubtedly subconscious but it was telling.
‘I’ve got this,’ it said. ‘Keep calm and watch Fourie du Preez handle s**t,’ to adapt the popular meme.
The gulf in his quality compared to Pienaar’s was patent. Du Preez’s service was that bit sharper, his passes had an extra zip, his decisions under pressure better, his tactical kicking more accurate. Pienaar is a fine player whose value to the Springboks is undoubted. But he isn’t Fourie du Preez. Nobody is.
The perspective, of course, is that Du Preez came on against an Argentina team on the ropes. Away from the comfort of home, the Pumas are hardly a measure of any Test player. But that doesn’t matter. In those 25 minutes, Du Preez showed enough to suggest that he had benefited immeasurably from a change of scenery and that the Springboks were in turn in a position to benefit from Du Preez Version 2.0.
Saru’s poor attitude
The suits at Saru didn’t make his return easy. Indeed, there was so little help forthcoming from South African rugby’s governing body regarding simple logistics that Du Preez almost made a U-turn on his commitment to Meyer. You’d think a business of its standing would engage all its energy and resources to secure the services of a player of Du Preez’s calibre. Yet the prevailing attitude is to treat him like a leper.
Du Preez, as far as some high-ranking administrators at Saru are concerned, is a traitor for his decision to continue his career in Japan and should be treated with the disdain befitting his perceived treachery.
If only this was a unique case. It is not. Springboks who have followed Du Preez’s path will testify to similar treatment. It is an indictment of the prehistoric thinking of the majority of men who run our game. For them playing in South Africa is a statement of loyalty, when the reality is geographical location cannot be a measure of loyalty.
Du Preez remains loyal to the Springboks and to Meyer, but this will not shape his professional path. He has signed a contract extension with Suntory that will take him through to March 2015, at which stage he’ll be 33.
‘Things change quickly in rugby, but my mind is set to see out my contract. I’d be open to a longer stay and perhaps a move into coaching.
I’ve learned to have zero expectations of administrators in South African rugby. The stress they caused me compared to the level of professionalism I experienced at Suntory made my decision to stay here simpler.
‘But more than that, Japan has given me a lot personally. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say my time here has changed my life completely. I’m a new man. A better man.’