After an illustrious career, Springbok stalwart Francois Louw has bowed out of the game on his terms, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine.
Francois Louw could not contain his emotions in the aftermath of the 2019 World Cup final. ‘My heart is full,’ he declared after confirming that the title-winning triumph marked the end of his 76-Test career.
It’s not often that Louw wears his heart on his sleeve in media interviews. Over the past decade, one of the Springboks’ most senior players has spoken with composure and clarity, whether the team had scored an important victory or lost in heartbreaking or even humiliating circumstances.
I put this this to Louw when I caught up with the Bok and Bath veteran four months after the World Cup final. He laughed when I mentioned that, before the 2019 success, he didn’t appear affected by his team’s results.
‘You have to be a master of disguise when you’re in front of the media,’ he says. ‘You can’t let people see what you feel. There’s a lot that’s going on behind that mask, though.
‘I was hugely emotional after we won the World Cup, not just because of the achievement but also because of my long journey toward that goal. Now that I am getting ready to hang up my boots for good, I can’t help but feel the same way.’
Louw, who will be 35 this year, had hoped to play out the season with Bath, but the English Premiership was put on hold due to the coronavirus.
‘Retirement from all forms of rugby is something I have been thinking about for the past year or so,’ he says. ‘My mind is willing, but I’ve got to consider how much punishment my body has taken over the years. I also have the opportunity to go out on my own terms.
‘There are so many things I didn’t achieve,’ he adds. ‘I didn’t win a Currie Cup with Western Province, a Super Rugby final with the Stormers or a Premiership final with Bath. I did win the Rugby Championship and World Cup with the Boks last year, though, and that has helped this decision. I can walk away with a full heart.’
As the grandson of Jan Pickard, who represented WP and the Boks in the 1950s, Louw grew up with a passion for the game. He never missed a match at Newlands and, like most schoolboys in the region, was desperate to realise his dream of wearing the blue and white hoops.
Louw did not represent WP at Craven Week, though. It was only in his second year as a university student that he was selected to play for the WP U21 team.
In 2008, when Rassie Erasmus took charge at the Stormers, Louw was backed to start in the loose trio. Two years later, he made his debut for the Boks, and it was in his first home Test that he scored a try underneath the Jan Pickard Stand at Newlands.
That same year, Louw was faced with a life-changing decision. ‘I was 25 and had just played for the Stormers in the 2010 Super Rugby final,’ he says. ‘Bath offered me the chance to come over to England and experience something very different.
‘It was never about the money. I wanted to broaden my horizons. Looking back, I’m grateful for the chances I’ve had to travel and experience new cultures in Europe. I believe that exposing myself to different teams in different countries has also helped my growth as a rugby player.’
The Boks certainly benefited from Louw’s knowledge and expertise in the 2018 and 2019 seasons. The veteran flank describes last year as the most challenging of his 15-year career.
‘We spent 20 weeks together, from the first conditioning camp to the World Cup trophy tour. Rassie’s regime is full-on – and rightly so; it certainly gets results. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a challenge, though.
‘So many quality players could have gone to the World Cup, but there were only a few loose-forward places in the squad. You couldn’t hold back in the Rugby Championship matches, because you knew you were playing for your World Cup spot.
‘At the same time, you were hoping you didn’t get injured. There was something inside you that was saying, “Please, please don’t get injured.” I was very relieved when I eventually got on to the plane to Japan.’
Louw was asked to play off the bench during the big matches at the 2019 World Cup. As the campaign progressed, he embraced his job as part of the self-styled ‘Bomb Squad’ – the group of reserves tasked with finishing and in some cases winning matches for South Africa.
‘I’m a competitive guy,’ he says. ‘I want to start every game and I want to be the best. I spoke to Rassie, and he felt that I could play a different role at the World Cup covering 6, 7 and 8. That bench role, he said, would be important.
‘You have two choices in that situation. You can buy into the plan or you can complain about it. I and the other guys on the bench decided to embrace our new roles wholeheartedly. So much is made about starting a game and even now, it’s something I want to do. However, having played off the bench a lot over the past year or so, I can vouch for how hard the reserves work and how their contributions can win a game.
‘The big win against the All Blacks in Wellington two years ago is a clear example. The starting guys were fantastic but the reserves had a lot more to do when we came on in the second half. I made about 10 tackles in four minutes. I’ve never been so tired in my life.
‘The game was also in the balance in the latter stages of the World Cup semi-final against Wales. The Bomb Squad had to come on and get the job done.’
Louw will be remembered for his heroic feats in that clash in Yokohama. With time running out and the Boks pinned back in their own half, he attacked the breakdown to win a momentum-changing penalty for his team.
From there, the Boks exited their half and then won another penalty at the ensuing lineout. Handre Pollard slotted the goal that sent South Africa into the final.
‘I still get a bit uncomfortable when I look at that breakdown penalty again,’ Louw says with a chuckle. ‘It was one of those situations where the referee might have blown in favour of either team. On the day I was the hero, but it could have gone the other way and I may have been remembered as the guy who conceded the decisive penalty in the semi-final.’
The best players stand up in pressure situations, though. They are brave enough to take a risk that can change the course of a match, or even a World Cup campaign.
‘I’d say it was a calculated risk,’ Louw admits of his approach to that particular breakdown. ‘You can’t hesitate in that situation. You are trying to make a difference in a high-pressure environment. You are using all your experience to look for the opportunity. When the moment arrives, your instinct takes over.’
Earlier this year, Louw had the opportunity to travel to the Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin with Bok skipper Siya Kolisi, new coach Jacques Nienaber and several other World Cup winners. The Boks were crowned Team of the Year.
‘We achieved a great deal in terms of results last season. What was truly special, however, was how we came together as a diverse group and united to pursue a common goal,’ he says. ‘I look back at the times when some people – and there are always going to be some people like that – tried to tear us apart. We saw all the videos and clips circulating at the World Cup, about supposed disharmony in the team. It was nonsense. Perhaps it said a lot for our strength as a group that we were able to come through that ordeal stronger, and that we went on to win the World Cup after that.’
Louw is looking forward to spending more time with his family and completing the transition from player to fan.
‘I told my six-year-old daughter about my decision to retire. She asked what that meant. Would I be spending more time with the family on the weekends? I said yes. Her whole face lit up. That put everything into perspective for me.
‘Last year was especially difficult as I only saw my family twice over a period of 20 weeks. My wife flew over to be with me in Japan but the kids stayed in the UK. After we won the World Cup, I flew back to Bath to see them for a couple of days. From there, I had to fly down to South Africa for the trophy tour. It’s a massive experience to win the World Cup but it does come at a cost.
‘I’m looking forward to watching games as a fan and shouting at the referee,’ he adds with another laugh. ‘I know there will come a point, perhaps one or two years down the line, where I will wonder whether I gave up too soon. I suppose that’s natural. You never really want to give it up but it doesn’t last forever.’
*This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine, which is now on sale.
FROM RUGBY TO FINANCE
Francois Louw has qualified as a financial adviser. The former Springbok flank intends to use his new skills and his experience as a professional sportsman to help young athletes.
‘It’s something younger people should be speaking about,’ he says. ‘How much money are they putting away each month? The 23-year-olds might not want to talk about it, because they are living the bachelor lifestyle. But five years down the line, they may have a family to consider.
‘I want to help them manage their affairs while they are still competing. A lot of them don’t get sound financial advice and don’t plan for life after sport. How long will they be at the top of their game, though? Ten years, if they’re lucky? Have they thought about what comes next?
‘I made some bad decisions as a young player,’ Louw adds. ‘I signed my first pro contract with WP at the age of 21. I thought I was the king of the world. I had no idea about how to manage my money, though. I wish I’d had someone with my experience guiding me. Hopefully that is something I can help people with.’