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Rugby Union

Fourie du Preez divides opinion

Graham Henry says he’s the best half-back in the world, a player of true class and quality. Former England coach Brian Ashton says he is the player who ran the game for the Springboks at last year’s World Cup. Heyneke Meyer believes he is the best No. 9 that South Africa has ever produced. Certain members of the South African Parliament believe he shouldn’t even be in the Test team facing New Zealand this Saturday in Cape Town.

Fourie du Preez would doubtless be surprised to find so many different opinions about himself; a touch bewildered to hear so many people making comment. But then, modesty has always been one of the core attributes of the South African scrum half, a player whom, in my estimation, fully merits Graham Henry’s praise.

The son of the former Northern Transvaal No 8 of the 1960s Fourie du Preez Senr., the current half-back is a diamond of a player. The reason for that is, he excels just as much off the ball as when he has it. Many scrum halves can pass well, some can attack and run to a pretty high level, too.

But du Preez, now 26, is just as good when he hasn’t got the ball. He reads a game like a book, covers intelligently and seems to sense danger and where he will best serve his team in terms of position. In locations as diverse as Dunedin to Paris, Cape Town to Christchurch, Fourie du Preez has made some superb covering tackles or tidied up loose ball that would otherwise have been of extreme danger to his side.

But there are other qualities besides. Like the classy batsman who always seems to have that extra second to play his shot, du Preez appears to unearth space and time beyond the comprehension of others. Commendably, he plays with his head up; watching, looking, plotting and scheming. He isn’t a half back obsessed with the break yet he keeps a back row honest by the occasional, deadly dart off the fringes of ruck, maul or scrum.

Invariably, when he chooses to break, it is at the most propitious moment for his team. For du Preez doesn’t waste ball, isn’t a flashy, erratic sort of player. Nor does he appear to get flustered. As the former South African full-back HO De Villiers says “Staying calm and composed is a huge part of his game. He takes everything in his stride.

“But I really think what makes him such a great player is that he always seems to be in control of what he is doing.”

Northern hemisphere observers have long felt du Preez is a player perfectly suited to rugby north of the equator. Even in heavy conditions, in the wet and cold, he is able to mastermind a game tactically. And still that marvellous pass that seems to spin like a top as it is flung out to his partner, remains the envy of all others. Here is a half-back who can clear the ball instantly, off either hand. No running sideways before unloading, that death knell to a backline, no erratic service. Just a fast, flat pass, delivered crisply, at speed and with great accuracy. How often do you see him fire the ball wide of his partner, or send it dribbling along the ground?

The world has known some fine half-backs in its time: Jeeps, Edwards, Laidlaw, De Villiers, Gallion, Howley, Farr-Jones, Kirk. Beyond argument, add Du Preez to that esteemed gallery.