He’s always fun to talk to, is Hendre Fourie. Never short of a story or two, the Leeds flanker tells a good one about how he first found out he was in the senior England squad. It was May last year, not long after he had done his bit to help Leeds avoid the Premiership drop, and there were mutterings that his reward might be a call-up to the squad to tour Australia.
“Me and the missus had gone to the cinema in the evening to see Clash of the Titans and halfway through the film I saw my phone flashing,” recounts Fourie, who was born in Burgersdorp in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. “I didn’t answer it because I didn’t want to disturb people but I looked at the number and it was one I didn’t recognise. As we left the cinema I said to my wife, ‘What are the chances this is Martin Johnson?’ I listened to the message and it was Martin Johnson, congratulating me on making the England squad!”
Fourie subsequently described his rise from Rotherham to England as a “fairy tale” – but there was no happy ending Down Under. In the tour opener against Australia A, Fourie suffered an ankle injury and that was that. No chance to compete for a spot in the two-Test series against the Wallabies, Fourie instead underwent treatment for the injury, then had a holiday in Bloemfontein. Cue another of his stories.
“Juan Smith, the Springbok, has the neighbouring farm to the one owned by my wife’s family. So when I was there last July I went over to say hello and we had a good chat. I told him I might see him in the autumn at Twickenham, to which he replied with a smile, ‘Well, we won’t be friends on the pitch but we’ll have a drink afterwards’.”
Even in his brief appearance in Australia, Fourie had done enough to convince Johnson that he was a player capable of withstanding the rigours of Test rugby. So the moment Fourie’s ankle injury healed, he was back in the England squad and he won his first cap in November.
It was the culmination of a remarkable journey for Fourie, one that began at Free State University. Having played in the university XV with current Springboks such as Flip van der Merwe and Bismarck du Plessis, Fourie struggled to make any headway with the Cheetahs. South Africans prefer their loose forwards big and at 6ft Fourie got the impression that he was never going to rise high on the veldt. In 2005 he came to England, playing part-time for Rotherham while studying for a teaching degree at Sheffield Hallam University.
Two years later he joined Leeds where he came under the tutelage of Neil Back, another openside who had to fight hard to prove that big doesn’t always mean best. “He’s done so much to improve my game,” Fourie says of the ex-England No 7. “He gives me small tips, little things you might not think are that important, but they’ve made me so much better as a player.”
Fourie was called into the Saxons squad for the first time in 2010, having qualified on residency, and proved an instant hit. Here was a good old-fashioned openside, a snaffler and a spoiler. Richie McCaw is the acknowledged expert when it comes to thieving ball from the opposition, of course – as England found when they played the All Blacks in November. Fourie started the match on the bench, a fidgeting ball of sinew struggling to take in the magnitude of the occasion. “The whole experience was incredible,” he says. “Arriving at the stadium and seeing all the fans cheering, it made me very nervous. When I got to the changing room I was shaking so I told myself to calm down, relax, and treat it as just another game.”
Fourie got on to make his debut for the last 14 minutes, by which time New Zealand had established an unassailable lead. Still, at least the after-match function was good. “I was presented with my cap at the dinner,” he says. “I also had a chat with Richie McCaw. Actually, I got my photo taken with him because of his stature in the game!”
Fourie won his second cap in the spine-tingling win over Australia, started the Samoa game and ended the autumn by replacing the injured Tom Croft in the 17th minute of the match against Smith and his South African buddies. There must have been some choice banter flying about? “No, there wasn’t actually,” says Fourie, with a laugh. “There was no time for that. Bismarck did give me a playful stamp on my leg at one point just to let me know he was there, but the game was so intense we didn’t have time to stand around chatting.”
With Lewis Moody out injured right now, Fourie has a great chance in the RBS 6 Nations to nail down the No 7 shirt ahead of the World Cup. For the moment, though, his mind is focused solely on England’s evolution as a world-class XV. “It’s really important that we use the Six Nations to continue building what we started in Australia last summer and continued in November. It’s such an important part of any successful team, to feel comfortable and confident playing together, and I feel a momentum is starting to build. It’s a blow to lose quality players to injury but we have the strength in depth to cope.”
This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine
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