Raging Bull

2008-06-20 15:06

London - Rugby fans across South Africa groaned audibly when Pierre Spies missed the World Cup due to illness. But the big man is back and aiming to be better than ever before. Zelím Nel reigns in the boisterous Bull.

It?s the Monday after another bruising Super 14 match and Pierre Spies has just completed the morning?s recovery session followed by a team debriefing. There?s not much time before his afternoon practice kicks off, but the 22-year-old doesn?t rush his answers, visibly relishing the opportunity to talk about his return to rugby.

Spies is on the leeward side of a crag that threatened to end the Springbok number eight?s climb to the top of world rugby, and he?s making his first bounding leaps on a journey back towards the summit he reached so explosively in 2006.

?It was quite amazing, I?ve never been so calm before a game in my life,? says Spies of his first game since being diagnosed with blood clots on the lungs in August last year. ?For me, even when I watched the game afterwards, I felt like I had never been out of it. I didn?t take contact for six months and then all of a sudden I?m playing against the Blues in the Super 14.?

The news of Spies?s pulmonary emboli broke just days after he had been named as a member of the World Cup squad. And by mid-August, an official press release confirmed that ?Spies needs full anticoagulation? this precludes him from any contact sports? SA Rugby has, with regret, decided to withdraw him from the Springbok Rugby World Cup squad?.

Spies displays a maturity beyond his years, perhaps borne out of his strong faith, when discussing the biggest disappointment of his professional career: ?When I was diagnosed the first thing I thought was, ?this is going to make a good book one day?, but I knew immediately that God was in control and that I needed to be strong and get really close to Him. Obviously it wasn?t very nice sitting on the side while the guys played so well,? he says with a wry smile, ?but I can only thank God, I had so much peace about the situation. The World Cup is a huge event and I would obviously like to have played, but I?ve got to keep it in perspective - I knew there was a bigger picture.?

A World Without Rugby

Spies made the trip to Paris for the World Cup, ?I actually watched the final from the stands ? it was exciting just being a spectator, and afterwards, sharing the experience with the guys at the team function.? Though he has since been cleared of any life-threatening disorder, Spies undertook a precautionary course of blood-thinning medication which restricted his physical activity,

?I wasn?t allowed to do any contact exercises, so I just tried to keep myself relatively fit while I was off.?

Spies was schooled at Affies in Pretoria and graduated from a Craven Week number eight to a South African Under-19 wing in 2004. He was back in the pack the following year when he made his first Super 14 appearance for the Bulls against the Highlanders. In 2006 he made his debut for the Springboks against Australia, and later delivered a man-of-the-match performance against the All Blacks in Rustenburg before being named SA Rugby?s Most Promising Player of the Year.

His condition, though, left him contemplating a future outside of sports, but what does a super-athlete do when training is prohibited? ?I was just living a normal life for once, being with the family a lot - I spent time with my girlfriend and began planning for the future,? says Spies. ?It was an eye-opener to have to get something going on the outside of rugby. I did a lot of appearances for corporates, churches and schools, testifying about what God?s done in my life.? The youngster doesn?t hesitate in affirming his beliefs, ?Rugby is important to me, but it isn?t everything - it?s just a part of my life, and I try to use it to give God glory.?

Spies also took the opportunity to further his studies, registering for a BSC in Construction Management at the University of Pretoria, ?I believe if you are willing to work you will be successful, so for me the studying was more about finishing the degree,? he says. ?I am interested in any kind of property development ? corporate or residential.?

But Not a Rugby World Without Spies

But don?t take that as an indication that the Springbok loose forward had given up on his rugby-playing dreams, ?I knew that it wasn?t over until the answer from the specialist was final ? I knew my time would come again.? He was cleared to join the Bulls in George for their Super 14 pre-season training camp towards the end of last year. ?In December I started running for the first time, we did a lot of that,? he laughs, ?and hard work in the gym.?

Almost four months of training with Frans Ludeke?s team passed the time as Spies neared his final battery of tests. ?My medication only stopped on March 1, and that was the day I got tested.? Spies had to endure an agonising three-week wait as the tests were sent away for analysis, but by March 20 the results had come back, and he was cleared of any blood-related medical condition, ?Pierre was at several specialists and they gave him the all-clear to play again,? says Dawie, Pierre?s uncle. The raging Bull immediately leapt onto the first available flight to New Zealand, eager to join his team mates on tour.

He scooped up his first try of the season in his third appearance for the Bulls ? all of them defeats. But Spies has not allowed the team?s poor results to dampen his mood. ?It?s been interesting - we haven?t had the best of starts or the best of seasons, but we?re again in a building stage, with new coaches, new players and new rules.? Spies is honest in his appraisal of the team: ?Obviously we?re not happy with our performances, but the Bulls are a great organisation, we just need to play better rugby to be more competitive.?

In Spies?s absence the likes of Ryan Kankowski and Keegan Daniel have risen to prominence, but the Bulls eighthman doesn?t view them as a threat, ?It?s exciting because it makes you want to - and need to - perform better,? he says. ?I need to excel because both of those guys are great players. Ryan and Keegan have had a great season so far.? It?s clear that this is a genuine appreciation for the challenge and not public-relations-speak. ?It?s great that there?s strong competition - it makes us all play better and that?s good for South African rugby.?

Spies doesn?t have to think for more than a second about his immediate plans for the future. Recently engaged to his long-term girlfriend, he is determined to fight his way back to good form and reclaim his status as a top-flight player, ?I just want to get on the field and play as much as I can so that I can improve as a player,? his grin recedes, his gaze sharpens and his voice drops in pitch, ?I want to be the number one choice at eight for the Boks again.?

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