England in SA

Fourie to hit ground running?

2012-05-30 12:03
Fourie du Preez (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Freshness ... it may seem strange to say about a player who hasn’t turned out at a suitably high level for several months and has just had his 30th birthday, but it is something Fourie du Preez may just bring to the party if he is picked as starting Springbok scrumhalf against England next week.

Speculation is mounting that Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will name the former Loftus legend as both first-choice No 9 and captain when he reveals his squad for the first Test in Durban on June 9, soon after the finish of Saturday’s Super Rugby derby between the Bulls and Stormers.

Understandably, there has been a significant amount of public and also some media resistance to the possible return of the now Tokyo-based player from the Suntory Goliath club.

There is a far from unreasonable argument that Du Preez looked dangerously close to a spent force at the 2011 World Cup, lacking the cutting edge, authority and broad aura that marked his massive contribution to the 2007 triumph in France.

Meanwhile the younger Francois Hougaard, something of a “supersub” at the last global jamboree, continues to play with phenomenal zeal and energy in Super Rugby, making him the logical succession fit to many observers.

But Meyer, who knows both players almost uniquely well from his long tenure with the Bulls, has been consistent and honest in his desire for a Bok scrumhalf who must be more than simply mercurial, fearless and frenetic: he seeks a “general” with an uncanny ability to sum up situations and, above all, boast a strong tactical kicking game.

These are qualities that probably only get better, rather than dim, with the passage of time – and besides, Du Preez only became a thirtysomething in late March which barely constitutes old-crock territory.

I am very much among those who suspected that the seasoned player was still handicapped by injury at the New Zealand-staged World Cup, and unable to do full justice to his known abilities.

As the tournament ended for South Africa in that controversial quarter-final reverse, I found myself deeply reluctant to simply place a “has been” cross alongside the name of Petrus Fourie du Preez; that would have been the kneejerk manner of those seeking instant, convenient scapegoats in the immediate aftermath of a failed mission.

He is believed to be in far better physical nick after the less damaging demands of the Japanese league: perhaps his biggest challenge now will be adapting anew to the pace and intensity of Test rugby although memory (both muscular and mental) can be an underestimated device in a much-capped player.

Besides, if Du Preez finds himself a little out of puff come the final 20-25 minutes at, say, Mr Price Kings Park and then in the second Test on the Highveld at Coca-Cola Park, the vastly talented, almost manically-committed Hougaard is hardly the worst infusion option off the bench ... or even, maybe, brought inward from a start-out wing position?

Strange as it may seem to some, I fancy that Du Preez could actually offer the Boks a multivitamin tonic, if you like, by his starting presence at a time when several candidates for the side run a big risk of succumbing to untimely, wide-ranging levels of fatigue after some 15 weeks of Super Rugby activity.

The Bulls and Stormers contingent may be particularly vulnerable, considering their particularly taxing itineraries in recent weeks and the fact that their Springboks will be coming immediately off a high-stakes derby between them.

At a time when bodies and minds are probably yearning for a feet-up Saturday or two, these men are being asked to only crank it up a notch for their country, not ease down.

So it is here where Du Preez may just find himself far less of an athletic liability than either he or others may fear - he could be more hungered by the scent of international combat than several around him.

And there is an argument for saying, too, that England - a team, incidentally, he tends to save some of his best rugby for - may be uncertain (handily from a Bok perspective) of what to expect from him, in the event of his near-fairytale comeback against them.

It will have been easier, presumably, for them to have fine-toothcombed Hougaard over the course of recent weeks, given his higher-profile presence in Super Rugby matches and the television pictures simultaneously available for both immediate and repeat scrutiny.

Hougaard is the future; few of us doubt that.

But a present featuring the rich acumen of Du Preez, at a time of relative transition for South Africa when some things staying the same is a key balancer, can still pay excellent dividends.
I am quietly confident on that score.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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