Ahead of his titanic clash this weekend with Ulster's Duane Vermeulen, we meet the young Bulls No 8 with a burning Boks ambition
By this point the story has grown enough arms and legs for three Vitruvian Men, but in giving his side of things, Elrigh Louw still finds an involuntary laugh.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds but it was one of my first trainings at the Bulls, coming from the Kings,” starts 22-year-old Louw. “We had a ‘shoulder check’ kind of training, and I obviously didn’t know what that means here at the Bulls.
“I’m always a guy who goes 100% and I think Duane (Vermeulen) was holding back a bit, thinking I would go down when he tried to tackle me, and I just ran through him. I think a few phases after that he got a bit agitated and f****** smashed the s*** out of me two or three times on the try-line! He was just showing me who is the big old man, still.
“It was all good fun and I think we’ve got huge respect for each other.”
It might not surprise you to hear that a fighting spirit is a bonus in Bulls country. And according to Louw, it’s something he has always had within arm’s reach.
He tells Rugby World that it may stem from his days at a “not so well-known school in South Africa”. Coming from Hoërskool Transvalia, he suggests there is not as straightforward a route to the pro game as there would be for graduates of, say, Paarl or Grey. But that suited his default character: the scrapper, who just wants to play hard.
Of course, being that guy does have its pitfalls. As a kid, he says, he was no stranger to a yellow card as he thundered towards the Valke side, on his way to age-grade honours and the Southern Kings. But in the big leagues, you need a bit of ice to go with the inferno.
Louw says: “Since I’ve been at the Bulls I’ve matured a lot in that sense. When I take contact in games and stuff like that I can’t just run through and over everybody. I had to adapt my game quite a bit when it comes to that and keeping cool. A stupid penalty or yellow card can throw away a game. Definitely I had to work on that aspect of playing hard.”
Just to take a step back, it’s always funny to consider the moment when a player realises that there may be someone bigger and more grizzled out there somewhere. There’s a strength in acknowledging that and finding out how best to use your own might.
“I can’t remember exactly who we were playing against, but I just ran into two huge units,” Louw says wryly of his own penny-plummeting moment. “And I felt (in my head), ‘Listen, you won’t be able to hold this up for 15 more years.’
“Since then I’ve been looking for space more than running into contact. Obviously you can’t shy away from the contact point of the game, but running into spaces has definitely added some edge to my game in recent matches I’ve played.”
Of course, Vermeulen is no longer at the Bulls, having moved to Ulster. The two meet this Saturday at Loftus Versfeld, each wearing No 8 in a tasty subplot to the Bulls-Ulster clash in the United Rugby Championship.
“I think Duane’s happy he went to Ulster because he got away from me walking in his shadow the whole time!” jokes Louw. But the 6ft 5in youngster made sure he squeezed as much out of the iconic back-rower as he could when they were together.
Louw talks of the things you can pick up from a player like that, that coaches might not be able to add. Such as keeping the ball in your eyeline and underneath you when controlling it at the back of a scrum. He describes Vermeulen as a guru for aspects like that, or setting up and demolishing mauls. Mastering that, Louw says, is vital at the top end of the game.
In January, Bulls skipper Marcell Coetzee told Rugby World to keep an eye out for Louw in the months to come, adding, “He will definitely be a Springbok in the future – a raw talent and an exceptionally tough bugger.”
Vermeulen is so indelible, it’s hard to picture anyone else wearing the No 8 jersey for the Boks, but there is also something of a logjam of candidates who want the job. There is Jasper Wiese and Dan du Preez from the English Premiership. Kwagga Smith recently filled the jersey, and Sikhumbuzo Notshe had real momentum before the pandemic hit.
But in what we would tentatively want to describe as normal times, could Jacques Nienaber look to test out some newbies in July, or when they next play England, outside of the Test window, when overseas stars are unlikely to be available?
Louw tells us he has had no conversations with the Springboks bosses but he would relish any opportunity, adding that it is part of his long-term thinking and as long as he is a professional player he would dream of representing his country.
One other name that has come up in discussions of the future at No 8 is Stormers star Evan Roos, who has caught the eye with some big performances lately. And Louw is well aware of Roos’s game.
“We are friends and we know each other quite well,” Louw tells us. “We were at the same camps for the U20 World Cup, so we got to know each other quite well there.
“We didn’t start in the same back row – I was playing lock and he unfortunately didn’t make the last team that went to the World Cup.
“I think in the back of both of our heads we are pushing each other. We don’t really speak to each other about that. Or about the game. But you always want to become better and not fall behind, so we do push each other.”
It will be fascinating to watch the progress of both players in the coming seasons.
Another dimension to contend with has been the clash of styles as the South African franchises have got to grips with regularly facing northern hemisphere teams in the United Rugby Championship.
Louw suggests that the structure and set-piece demands of playing northerners was a shock at first, after coming through the somewhat looser games met in Super Rugby Unlocked. Now the Bulls are in their stride. They know what to expect and what is expected of them.
With all the pressure that comes with the game they play and life on the road so often, Louw and his pals will switch off in some expected ways, with coffee trips obviously a must. But there is golf too, and Louw remembers one trip to play at Carton House.
He is… an enthusiastic golfer, he says. Not up there with the likes of Bulls fly-half Chris Smith, but he likes to get out there.
Mind you, golf could be one of the most tortuous pursuits for the easily frustrated. And this is a man who has worked hard on keeping a cooler head. But, Louw says, the beauty of fluffing a shot in golf is that you can shake your head, walk ten metres to the barely-whacked ball and take another shot. In rugby, you might not get another crack in certain situations.
Of course, in an age when Springboks director Rassie Erasmus has reportedly claimed ‘weak’ youngsters shouldn’t be promoted in the South African game, Louw stands out as a kid who likes to get in the mixer.
Just ask Duane Vermeulen.
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