“Life is funny. A few weeks back I didn’t think I was going to be here and a few months back I didn’t think I was going to still play rugby. So to sit here as captain this weekend is unbelievable for me.” So says Fourie du Preez, the man who has gone from Nowheresville to Twickenham to lead South Africa in a World Cup quarter-final, in the blink of an eye.
Of course, the fact that du Preez has the talent to play in the latter stages of a World Cup is not in question – he won the thing in 2007. But since South Africa were knocked out of the 2011 World Cup the brilliant scrum-half has spent most of his time playing for Suntory Sungoliath in Japan. His club contract stated he was available for South Africa’s home Tests, but just 12 of his 74 caps have come since October 2011, partly due to him suffering injuries. As he hadn’t featured at all for the Springboks since 28 June 2014 when coach Heyneke Meyer was picking his squad for this World Cup, you would certainly have got long odds on du Preez playing a part.
But Meyer included the veteran among his 31 players, brought him off the bench in the first match against Japan and then handed him the No 9 jersey for the other three Pool B matches against Samoa, Scotland and the USA. After captain Jean de Villiers broke his jaw against Samoa and vice captain Victor Matfield was also sidelined with a hamstring injury, du Preez was given a further gift of the captain’s armband and he has played a major role in helping South Africa bounce back from their shock defeat to Japan to top their pool and progress to the last eight.
When Meyer chose du Preez as captain for the clash with Scotland at the start of this month, the coach was bullish about his qualities. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in Fourie, I’ve coached him since he was 19 years old and even back in the day I was astonished about his rugby knowledge and always believed he would be a rugby genius. And he is a rugby genius,” Meyer said. “Fourie’s not a guy of a lot of words, not like me, but he’s a true warrior and that’s what you’re going to need.”
Du Preez himself acknowledged that every game was effectively a knockout match after South Africa were turned over 34-32 by Japan on the opening weekend. Then, the mood in the squad was further darkened by the loss of de Villiers, so du Preez had to lead the Boks out of the deepest and darkest of World Cup holes – but he succeeded.
After the 34-16 win over Scotland he was quick to share the credit, saying: “I want to thank the rest of the players that stood by me. Everyone stood up today, everybody stood up last week as well, under immense pressure. It’s been an unbelievable experience for me.
“We’ve put everything on the line these past two weeks and it’s definitely the most pressure I’ve ever been under – not even in the 2007 final was the pressure as these two weeks have been.”
Speed of thought and deed
So what has du Preez done to keep Ruan Pienaar – owner of 87 Springbok caps including 23 starts since the end of the 2011 World Cup – out of the starting line-up for the last three weeks?
The veteran is playing with a fantastic rhythm, keeping his pack going forward and keeping the opposition guessing. Du Preez is not making many metres with the ball in hand himself, although a tap-and-go from a penalty created South Africa’s first try against the USA, but he is producing a variety of passes and kicks and using his team’s attacking weapons – most notably Bryan Habana – to crack open defences.
In that same game against the USA a little dab of a kick found Habana and gave him the space to run in his first try, in the first minute of the second half, while a superb flat pass from a lineout sent the wing in for his second try.
See the highlights of South Africa v USA here.
Du Preez doesn’t have the pace of old, but he has an incredible rugby brain which has not been dulled in the least by the passing of time. As Japan coach Eddie Jones, who coached du Preez at Suntory Sungoliath told SA Rugby Magazine: “He is the best decision-making halfback I’ve ever seen. Fourie’s ability to come out of the ruck, to know whether to hit the short runner or go wide, is superb. It’s like having a coach on the field.”
Enter the dragon
Samoa, Scotland and the USA all failed to rain on du Preez’s parade, so can Wales turn his World Cup dream into a nightmare during Saturday’s quarter-final (Twickenham, 4pm)? The Wales back row will be the classiest and canniest he has faced in this tournament, but his opposite number Gareth Davies is a relative rookie – eight years his junior and with just eight caps to his name, four of them won at this tournament.
However, Davies has been one of the success stories of RWC 2015 so far, scoring four tries and piloting Wales to wins over England, Fiji and Uruguay, so du Preez should be wary of him. This will be his toughest test in this tournament so far.
Wales won when the two teams last met, at the Millennium Stadium in November of last year. What’s more, they kept the Springboks tryless in that 12-6 win and kept Australia from crossing the whitewash last weekend too. However, before Wales fans get too over-excited, let’s not forget South Africa beat Wales 16 times in a row before last year’s meeting.
Du Preez played in seven of those victories and helped the Boks cross Wales’ try-line 27 times. It may be stretching the truth to say he is back at his best, but he is in magnificent form, enjoying an unexpected return to the limelight, and he won’t want it all to end just yet.
Fourie du Preez by numbers
Age – 33 (born 24 March, 1982)
Total South Africa caps – 74
Test debut – v Ireland, June 2004
World Cup appearances – 15
World Cup 2015 stats – 246 passes, 26 kicks from hand, 16 runs (total of 59m), 13 tackles, 87% tackle success rate.
For the latest Rugby World magazine subscription offers, click here.