Pretoria - Pierre Spies may well be back on the field after an absence of almost 18 months, but there is something a bit different to the big No 8.
According to the supersport.com website, the Bulls captain is readying himself to make his comeback next week in London against English club Saracens in the team’s final pre-season friendly, but for once it seems he is less headstrong, less bullish and more philosophical about the whole prospect.
The impact of two major injuries may have something to do with that. The chance to come back after almost being forgotten by the entire country another.
But don’t let it be mistaken for a lack of determination.
Spies is the same athlete he has always been, more conditioned than ever. And while that doesn’t necessarily translate to on-field form, in one context, it is half the battle that has been won.
There is a different outlook from the big man, rather than trying to prove a point, he is focusing on his own goals, making sure he follows his own path. Whatever comes from that is beyond his control.
“It’s very good to be back. I have trained a long time for this. Slowly getting used to getting back into all the rugby moves again. It’s been a long time on the sidelines, I can’t believe it's been a year or year and a half since I last played,” Spies said candidly.
“The game keeps moving on, teams get better, players get better. You have to work harder to keep yourself at that level. It was a good time for me off the field, I had time to concentrate on other things in life, I experienced things from the outside and it allowed me to get hungry for the game again. It’s a wonderful year that lies ahead. I’ve done what I can to get myself into good shape again, now I’ve just got to get onto the field again.”
Since he has been gone another colossus has found its way onto the field. Duane Vermeulen has firmly established himself as one of the best in the world, and is rightly the incumbent in the Bok eight jersey. His form is sublime, so much so that it was a travesty he wasn’t rewarded as the World Player of the Year last year, and is almost a certainty for the SA Rugby Player of the Year award.
Spies has lost ground. But he is one who likes a challenge. And even though the great irony of sport has seen that both him and Vermeulen have never gone head to head for the Bok jersey (in the early days Vermeulen was injured, the last two seasons it was Spies’ turn), the prospect is something that makes Spies smile.
“I think it’s an excellent challenge to have. Duane played exceptionally well this past year and he was great for the Springboks, and probably one of the best players in the world,” he explains.
“For me though, the competition will bring the best out in me, and I know it's all a process that I have to go through: First I need to get myself onto the field again, then have a good season for the Bulls and then hopefully for the Boks as well.
“I just want to jol where I get my chance, for me at the moment it is all about the simple things, to enjoy my time on the field, to enjoy the game and to do what I can do on the field well.”
Given his experience in World Cups – he missed 2007 because of illness – Spies admits it is something that is in his mind. For now though, it isn’t the most important thing. It’s there, in the distance, but there are a number of factors that need to play themselves out before then.
“I think you’d be lying if you’re not thinking about the World Cup. But I’m taking it step for step,” Spies adds.
“For me it’s more important to get myself onto the field, get confidence again and then to play as well as I can there. The rest will sort itself out, and if I’m meant to be there I will be. It is still a dream for me though.”
That starts with leading his Bulls side into battle. While still rebuilding, there is an inkling that the Bulls can produce something special if they have a bit of luck, and ensure they do their basics right.
“There is a lot more experience, and if the injuries stay away, and we can build some momentum, then we can have a good season. We have a good balance between old and young players at the moment.
“I think we have the motivation to do well. We didn’t have a great year last year and as players we have the desire to make it a better year than last year. There will always be pressure from outside but for us as players we want to ensure that we make it a good year for the bulls.”
With that he smiles and walks away.
The comeback has been a long time coming, and Spies is ready to do battle once more.
Just what he can make of the season waits to be seen. The challenges are there to be conquered. The naysayers will be out to write him off as well.
In the end it will be up to him to prove he still has it.
And for that there is motivation a plenty.