Spies keeps knockers at bay
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Pierre Spies (Gallo Images)
Cape Town -
I haven’t put my long-time reservations into the storage shed quite yet, but also feel a lot less resistant right now to Pierre Spies’s ongoing tenure in the Springbok No 8 jersey.GALLERY: Springboks v New Zealand in Port ElizabethVIDEO: All Blacks denied a try by TMO
Give the Bulls man his due: he has just done something I have all too often felt he has been unable to pull off - two really good matches on the trot for his country, and this after more than 40 Tests.
Doing so against Australia and New Zealand respectively, the only two sides currently ranked above South Africa on the IRB ladder, has got to be considered a special feather in his cap, and exactly the right sort of personal ammunition to be taking into a World Cup.
I suspect that even Spies’s more loyal backers would reluctantly concede that for much of his international career - which began in the 0-49 collective horror show against Australia at Brisbane in 2006 - the player has tended to get by more on fits of undoubted brilliance than on consistent competence or stellar work rate.
In a nutshell, he is one who has tended to “go quiet” too frequently in a position where you expect particularly high visibility from the occupant: No 8s tend not to get starved of activity in the manner some wings might in grinding, forward-dominated contests, for instance.
It is also said - often with considerable justification - that when the pack he is representing goes backwards, Spies fails to cut the mustard as a defensive factor.
But maybe it is time for a dash of perspective: if Saturday’s show of urgency and physicality by the senior core of Bok forwards was any sign of things to come at RWC 2011, the defending champions ought to find themselves in go-forward mode more often than they are back-pedalling.
And it is in that landscape that Spies comes so strongly into his own, of course, as evidenced both in Durban (at least during the first half) and Port Elizabeth.
His pace off the mark ensuring immediate momentum, he makes compelling yards toward the gain-line, often requiring the attention of more than one defender to curb his rampaging, ball-in-hand charge.
And when he takes up a station among the back division, which is something to be encouraged, he is just as likely - considering his known completion of a 10.7-second 100-metres time - as any three-quarter to bust the line.
It is a gift not to be sniffed at when you consider that Bok backs are not exactly penetrating the advantage line as comfortably as Wallaby or All Black counterparts, so any extra string to the team’s attacking bow has got to be a treasured device.
The message also seems to be sinking in to Spies, too, that less glamorous graft cannot be shirked: if you closely watch re-runs of both recent Tri-Nations matches on our soil, you will only be able to confirm to yourself that the big “Affies” product was refreshingly, almost unceasingly involved in this department.
He retains a tendency to lunge clumsily at opponents with a too upright stance, which means he’ll slip one or two tackles and thus test his team’s broader defensive alignment quite sternly, but generally speaking the improvement from him in this area is marked - when the mood grabs him his hits are as bone-jarring as anyone’s, don’t forget, given the benefits of his unusually muscular physique.
This was the second time, interestingly, when he has delivered for the Bok cause when victory over the All Blacks has been overdue and by extension desperately sought: the previous occasion was in Rustenburg in 2006, when the Boks snuck a 21-20 consolation win after being roasted by 19 points by the same foes at Loftus only a week earlier.
That encounter at the Royal Bafokeng was a rare instance of Spies wearing the No 7 jersey for South Africa; veteran utility forward AJ Venter was the designated eighthman that day.
Aged 26, Spies has a chance at this World Cup to confirm - maybe a little belatedly - that he has genuinely arrived; that the perceived show pony does, in fact, warrant closer parallels to a stallion ...