Listen to this article
It is ironic that South Africa’s Springboks prepared for Sunday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final against Argentina in a community called Noisy. For that is precisely what their most important player, scrum-half Fourie du Preez, is not.
Speak to any journalist following the Bokke and their response is the same: “Nice guy. Very modest. Smart. But he doesn’t say much.” A British writer who saw him at a press conference described him as “backing up against a wall as if threatened by gangsters”.
Any such timidity stops when du Preez, 25, walks on to the pitch. His performance in South Africa’s 36-0 win over reigning champions England in the group stage, setting up all three tries, was the outstanding individual display of the tournament so far. It gave weight to South African claims that he is the best scrum-half in the world.
Tomorrow’s clash at the Stade de France brings him up against another claimant, Argentina’s veteran captain Agustín Pichot. On their only previous meeting, in 2004, South Africa won 39-7 and du Preez scored a try. He is, though, thoroughly respectful of his adversary, talking this week of “his leadership skill and the pressure that he puts on the opposing half back”. Pichot, he says, is: “Always there trying to upset you and obviously he wants to direct his team as he is their leader. He is one of those scrum-halves that are in your face the whole time and it is difficult to play against a scrum-half like that.”
Like a number of the South African squad – three are the sons of international players – du Preez is a rugby dynast. His father, also Fourie, was a fine number eight forward reckoned unlucky never to have worn the coveted dark green shirt.
In 2002, his son was scrum-half for the South Africa team that won the first ever under-21 World Cup under the direction of Jake White, now the Springbok coach. He was playing senior representative rugby at 19, graduated aged 20 to the North Transvaal Blue Bulls team in the Super 14, the southern hemisphere championship for regional franchises, and a year later made his test debut.
Here too he was following in distinguished, if not paternal, footsteps – those of Joost van der Westhuizen, South Africa’s World Cup-winning scrum-half in 1995 and a dominant force in the position for a decade.
Scrum-half is, perhaps, the most demanding and specialised position in rugby. He is the link between backs and forwards, making more than half of a team’s passes during a match. He needs speed of hand and brain, all-round skills, tactical sense and exceptional physical courage. Traditionally the smallest man on the pitch, at 6ft and 190lb, du Preez is the largest of the four semi-final scrum-halves but shorter and lighter than all but one of his team-mates – he has to deal at close quarters with much larger men whose purpose is to stop him playing.
Van der Westhuizen was a great individualist, a formidable attacking force of greyhound-like speed. He scored 38 tries, a South African record, in 89 matches.
Du Preez is less flamboyant. He has scored eight tries in 36 matches, roughly half Van der Westhuizen’s rate. Yet he is probably even more dangerous as a highly intelligent and selfless enabler of other players.
The way in which he made, rather than scored, tries against England testified to the range of his skills and ability to see and seize an opportunity. The first was as the man in support when wing JP Pietersen made a break, carrying on the move before timing his pass perfectly for flank forward Juan Smith to score. Then he created two for Pietersen, seizing a loose ball to take advantage of a momentary weakness in the English defensive line and run 45 metres, then later looping around on the blind side.
Eddie Jones, the former Australian coach who has joined the Springbok back-up team, says: “Fourie sees the game one ruck ahead of everyone else.”
When du Preez speaks of knowing how many defenders are on the blind side and making breaks “as easily as tying my shoelaces” it sounds like a rare break from that much-advertised modesty, until you realise that he is simply telling it like it is as a sportsman gifted with spatial awareness denied the rest of us.
That intelligence is not purely instinctive. England coach Brian Ashton spent some time with the Blue Bulls a couple of years ago and recalled du Preez as: “The one player who constantly wanted to sit down and verbally explore the game, a guy with a lot of ideas on how to play.”
It is also no coincidence that his father, whom he rates the greatest influence on his game, was a forward. Springbok forward coach Gert Smal says: “When we plan things, he participates quite extensively. It is good to have an experienced player like that.”
Forwards invariably love a scrum-half who kicks well and can take play 40 or 50 metres upfield with a precisely judged swing of the boot. Nobody does this better – as White says: “His kicking game is an unbelievable base for us.”
There was some surprise among the South Africans when du Preez was not – as he was in 2006 – on the five-man short-list for International Rugby Board player of the year.
Du Preez, one suspects, does not mind in the slightest. This year, and particularly this month, the only title that matters is won in partnership with your team-mates – that of a World Cup winner.
Déja vu – will World Cup rivals go full circle?
Today’s World Cup semi-final between France and England at the Stade de France brings together two teams that have salvaged redemption, self-respect and some stability from a campaign that threatened to offer none of these.
Each faces the prospect that victory will bring their World Cups full circle – taking the trophy by beating the team that knocked them off-course in the first place. France’s tournament was knocked sideways on opening night, when Argentina beat them 17-12, while one week later England were humiliated 36-0 by South Africa.
Each of them celebrated victory over one of the southern superpowers last week as though they had won the final. It is not that either believed their job was done or a place in the semi-final sufficient achievement, but that those victories restored both self-belief and the regard of their fans.
That relief was threatened in an almost euphoric press conference by England captain Phil Vickery, who called on journalists to stop “writing crap”. With pleasure Phil, provided that you’ve stopped playing it.
Argentina too were beside themselves with joy as they beat Scotland. It may be instructive that South Africa showed no such reaction, gracefully allowing the beaten Fijians a lap of honour. The sense was of a job not yet half-done.
But Vickery has had little to enjoy in the four years since England became champions, so it is hard to begrudge him that moment of triumph – still less that honest, decent warrior Martin Corry, in the firing line for so much that has gone wrong.
To do that means beating France, which has been achieved only once in six meetings. That was only a few months ago at Twickenham, but with an England team playing in a style unlikely to be replicated today. Most evidence suggests that France know how to play England, and that they are unlikely to be physically dominated in the way Australia were last week.
The first-ever World Cup semi-final to repeat the same fixture from four years earlier is unlikely to be pretty. If heart and commitment alone could win a World Cup, then England have every chance. If more is demanded, they are likely to be found wanting.