In an exclusive interview, ex-Springbok No 8 PIERRE SPIES talks about calling time on his career, the Bulls’ travails and previews the contest between the All Blacks and Springboks in Albany on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: Why did you decide to retire when you were released by Montpellier?
Pierre Spies: I was planning on finishing my professional playing career at Montpellier and, even though I was released with two years still to run on my contract, I feel as though I left the game on my own terms. I could have continued playing rugby, but I decided to end my career because I believe the time is right to begin the next chapter of my life. The moment I made the decision to call time on my career - I wasn’t going to uproot my family and move again for rugby - I had peace in my heart. In terms of the way in which I was told my services were no longer required, surely the club could have done it in a much better and more professional manner. (Spies was informed of his axing 10 minutes before a press release was issued by the club). I believe there are better ways to manage players and, while each team dynamic is different, the industry is quite cutthroat. That’s the way it is over in France and I hope it doesn’t happen with too many players in the future. It was a rough time, but I’m very thankful for the fruitful career I enjoyed. It has been a wonderful journey and one I will remember for the rest of my days. It was an amazing honour to wear the Springbok jersey (Spies earned 53 Test caps for South Africa) and I remember all my years at the Bulls with fondness. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of my life filled with excitement and wonder, and I believe the best is yet to come. Family, faith, future and my purpose motivated me to retire from the oval game.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of Patrick Lambie penning a contract with Racing 92?
Pierre Spies: Pat has reached a point in his career where he has played over 50 Tests for the Springboks and close on 100 matches for the Sharks. Talking from a players’ perspective, maybe his desires and what he wants out of the game have changed. Players have their reasons for heading abroad and, if they have the opportunity to experience another country and earn in a different currency, they would want to do it because this career is only for a limited time. Taking in a different culture is just amazing and travelling around the world is one of the great things everyone wants to experience. Pat has endured some difficult times with injuries over the last three years in particular, and a change of scenery may be just what the doctor ordered for the 26-year-old. Players today look at the game in a much broader way and see the overseas option as a lifestyle choice. The European lifestyle is much more laid back than in South Africa and, in my opinion, there are fewer distractions. Furthermore, there are old-school values which exist within the professional game in France. It should be a wonderful experience for Pat to play rugby in France and I foresee him doing really well at Racing 92, having signed a four-year contract with the club. The culture of the game is well-preserved and after-match functions are a regular occurrence. I loved every minute playing my rugby in France and I’m still staying there with my family before we make the move back home to Pretoria.
Sport24 asked: As a former Bulls stalwart, what is your take on the union’s current woes?
Pierre Spies: Like life, rugby works in cycles and maybe it’s good that the Bulls are at this place again because they can start to build and have the right foundation for the next generation to prove a force. The dynasty of the past is finished and the organisation needs some proper vision and correct recruitment in order to once again prove successful. When you want to make a change in a new direction usually that should start at the top. The whole union and Blue Bulls Company have to take responsibility for the past failings and they obviously have to look at themselves from every angle. They need to plan for the next 10 to 20 years and become a powerhouse in South African rugby. We will have to wait and see if John Mitchell is someone who can drive the new process forward. I hope Mitchell can make the changes that the Bulls need in order to get them on the right track again. I think everyone wants to see the Bulls succeed again. However, nobody knows what the future holds.
Sport24 asked: What is your professional assessment of the Springbok class of 2017?
Pierre Spies: The series win against France and the Boks’ unbeaten start to the Rugby Championship proves they are on an upward curve. The South African public has to get behind the team and stay committed to them because the Boks are building every week and month and are improving as a unit. And that is very positive for the team and for the country. In terms of the Springboks’ most recent result, I reckon the draw against the Wallabies was a good outcome considering that they were playing away from home. It’s a new team and we are building something fresh in many ways. The class of 2017 are a very talented group, who are willing to fight for each other and play for the country, which is what you want. I believe continuity is critical to the Springboks’ continued progression. We can’t build for four years and then lose all of our experience at once, which has been the trend in South Africa. The bottom line is that you cannot build a world-class team without investing in continuity and experience. SA Rugby has to make it worthwhile for top players to stay in South Africa. I maintain that we have the resources in this country to close the gap between what players are earning in South Africa and what they can earn abroad. I believe South Africa can be the greatest rugby country in the world, but SA Rugby has to safeguard its greatest assets - the players.
Sport24 asked: Your view ahead of the 94th Test between the Boks and All Blacks?
Pierre Spies: The All Blacks are the best team in the world at this stage. However, every Saturday is a new beginning and I believe anything can happen on the day. The All Blacks are a very well-drilled attacking team and our defence has to be effective to shut them down. In order to succeed against the All Blacks, it really comes down to a low error rate. One slipped tackle or bad kick affords them opportunities, so the Boks have to be extremely focused. If the Boks can learn to hold onto the ball for multiple phases, they can start to convert pressure into points. Playing in New Zealand is always a difficult assignment. However, it will be a good way to measure where the Boks are at in terms of their development against the All Blacks, who will put them under immense pressure. It's going to require a full 80-minute effort of complete focus from the Boks and, when you beat the All Blacks, it’s not by any fluke. You have to really deserve it. (Spies played against the All Blacks 10 times and had a 50 percent win rate). In terms of the reshuffled loose trio, in the absence of the injured Jaco Kriel, it’s an area where South Africa has never lacked talent. Jean-Luc du Preez will add a different dimension to the backrow. He is a very talented youngster and has been playing some really good rugby. I hope Jean-Luc plays many more games for the Boks, and the team can get the continuity going so the players are able to feed off each other’s strengths. The Boks have assembled a great coaching staff and I’m sure that they have done their homework in order to make the right technical decisions. The All Blacks are a great side, but aren’t unbeatable and it will be a good yardstick to see what pressure the Boks can apply on their hosts. I’m looking forward to an exciting Test on Saturday.
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