Interview: Francois Louw back on high as Bath seek Euro glory

The world-class Springbok star who carries West Country hopes in Toulouse on Sunday tells Chris Hewett of his 'massive desire' to play well in the must-win match with the French giants

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The Independent Online

Farleigh House, the Gothic revivalist country house on the Somerset-Wiltshire border where the rugby players of Bath do their training and conditioning these days, is just about the nearest thing the game has to its very own Brideshead and therefore precisely the kind of place you might expect to find a member of its aristocracy. Francois Louw is a union blue-blood, although the stuff he regularly spills in pursuit of his craft looks red enough, and over the course of the coming year he may just find himself lording it over every other loose forward on the planet.

“Since he’s come back from injury, he’s delivered world-class performances in every game,” pronounced Mike Ford, the head coach of the West Country club, during preparations for tomorrow’s important European Champions Cup visit to Toulouse – opponents every bit as superior in terms of style and heritage as Bath. “And I mean every game, in all aspects.

“When you think what he’s been through with the surgery on his neck and realise that there’s still more to come from him as he moves towards full form and fitness... let’s just say he’s going to be a pretty significant figure for us.”

For the Springboks too. In a nation awash with seriously accomplished back-row types – Schalk Burger and Marcell Coetzee, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen, Juan Smith and Siya Kolisi and Pierre Spies – the 29-year-old from Cape Town is something close to an automatic choice at Test level and will be among the first names on the South African squad sheet for this year’s World Cup, despite living and playing some 9,000 miles offshore. Yet when Louw was hurt during a Rugby Championship meeting with the All Blacks in Wellington in mid-September, all this could easily have crumbled to dust.

Louw found himself on the hazardous end of a frank and forthright ruck clear-out by the New Zealand captain and secular saint Richie McCaw, who, contrary to popular opinion down there in the Land of the Long White Cloud, has been known to put it about a bit. Some of the bigger names among the South African rugby chatterati, including the former coach Nick Mallett and the former captain Bobby Skinstad, thought McCaw was some way short of legal at that breakdown. “If it had been Bakkies Botha,” said Skinstad, referring to that great dark force of the Springbok pack, “the whole world would have campaigned against it.”

You will not catch Louw saying anything like the same sort of thing. “I heard there was some discussion of it back home, but I don’t know exactly what was said,” he remarked, with a shrug. “From my point of view it was a massive hit, but there was nothing more to it than that.

“I remember the incident quite clearly: I was looking to get myself over the ball and Richie came in hard and hit me head on. It split my eye open, but the real problem was that my head snapped back with the impact. I’d had a slight problem in the neck area for four or five years – a bulging disc pressing on a nerve – but this left me with continuous pins and needles, some numbness, some pain down my arm.

Thierry Dusautoir, the Toulouse flanker, will be an exciting opponent for Louw

“I don’t suppose I was in any real danger, but it’s a scary thing when it happens. You’re always aware of your health, your future, and when you don’t quite know the degree to which you’ve been damaged, the uncertainty takes over. Fortunately, I was in good hands: my specialist had helped John Smith and B J Botha [Springbok front-rowers] through the same thing and gave me the best advice. He said I could try to hang in there by ‘managing’ the problem, but didn’t recommend it. I had the operation a week later.”

Recuperation took the best part of three months, but Louw is now fully back in the thick of it, where he feels he belongs. That sense of rugby belonging was there right from the start: he was educated at Bishops Diocesan College in the Rondebosch suburb of Cape Town, one of South Africa’s proudest rugby schools, but more significantly, his grandfather was Jan Pickard, a Springbok forward in the 1950s and one of the most influential administrators in the republic’s sporting history.

“Rugby was not quite the be-all and end-all when I was growing up – my family would have supported me in anything I wanted to do – but it was definitely a big theme in my home life,” Louw said.

“My grandfather was a substantial figure in the game: he ran Western Province during the golden years of the 1980s, when they won half a dozen Currie Cup titles, and pretty much built up the stadium at Newlands. My father played too, but only social stuff, really. It all comes from my mother’s side.”

An interesting footnote: Pickard was involved in one of South African union’s more celebrated on-field “incidents”. During a trial match before his country’s tour of New Zealand in 1956 – the greatest tour of them all according to many eminent chroniclers – he found himself in a fierce dust-up with the formidable Salty du Rand, his rival from what was then known as Northern Transvaal. Both men were chasing the captaincy, but the selectors were so alarmed by the brawl that they chose a complete outsider, the full-back Basie Vivier, to lead the group as a “unifying force”.

Louw smiled. “It’s not an urban myth: something went on, although I understand it was sorted out pretty quickly,” he said, before flashing his fists in a one-two combination that Muhammad Ali might have found impressive. “That old rivalry between Western Province and the Blue Bulls of Pretoria is still there. Things have changed a lot in the professional era – players jump ship if they have a better chance of first-team rugby elsewhere, so the big provincial teams are made up of people from many different parts of the country – but the traditions still count for a lot.”

More than in England? Does a Western Province-Blue Bulls fixture carry more baggage than a Bath-Gloucester derby? “It’s difficult to compare rugby cultures,” Louw replied. “Back home, rugby is the national sport, with all the publicity that generates. But that’s not to suggest that the supporters are any more partisan. Even if the scale is different – Newlands holds 51,900 spectators, the Recreation Ground holds 12,000 – I wouldn’t have missed this Premiership experience for the world. It’s been fantastic.

“I’ve always loved the game: if I’d just made it to club or university level, I’d have been happy enough. But to have been able to do this – to come to England, the doorway to Europe, and see the world... it’s everything I could have wished.

“It was a big decision to leave South Africa, of course. I was 25, quite a bit younger than most South Africans who were heading abroad at that time; I’d been capped by the Springboks; I’d just played in a Super 15 final. At no point did I feel I was turning my back on my country. That thought never crossed my mind. However, you’re never quite sure how such a move will affect you internationally.”

In their infinite wisdom, the Springbok hierarchy decided that Louw’s status as an exile paled into insignificance when compared with his status as a Test performer of the highest calibre, and we can rest assured that he will be part of the South African pack when the World Cup begins in September.

“It’s certainly my hope that I’ll be involved,” he said, modestly unaware that this was the rugby equivalent of Al Pacino crossing his fingers ahead of a movie audition.

First, though, there is the small matter of Toulouse and their stellar back-rowers: Thierry Dusautoir, Yannick Nyanga, Louis Picamoles and the rest. That Bath have to win the game is largely down to the fact that they didn’t beat the four-time champions in a tight one at the Rec in October, which in turn was largely down to the fact that Louw was still nursing his ravaged neck. He will make a difference tomorrow, for sure.

“We’re not completely out of the running: if we focus properly and execute accurately, we can win,” he said. “And for me, this is special – a rivalry between two nations as well as two clubs.

“I have a massive desire to play well in this match because to go up against someone like Dusautoir is a privilege. It makes me feel humble. More than that, it excites me.”