- Cheetahs coach Hawies Fourie’s return to Bloemfontein has been rough for various reasons, but he’s not a man who dwells on the past.
- Lockdown has been a busy period for the man from Ceres as he’s juggled a viable recruitment strategy with refining a system to make his side more consistent in Europe.
- But the switching of styles so many preach for the Cheetahs to master to be a bigger presence in the PRO14 is easier said than done.
- Fourie has no regrets leaving the comforts of being Maties coach with the cutthroat environment of SA franchise rugby.
The inherent uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic means a lot of people, whether they do so fondly or not, try to reflect on the past.
It provides some sense of comfort at least, a type of certainty.
Hawies Fourie is not that type of guy.
If he had to take stock of his last seven months, he’d be riddled with doubts over his decision to become the Cheetahs’ head coach last year.
The 51-year-old from Ceres, after muscling out a rumoured 30-plus other candidates for the position, was supposed to take over from Franco Smith after the victorious Currie Cup campaign.
But an operation meant that Smith had to be asked to take charge of first three matches of the new PRO14 season, which the Cheetahs all won emphatically in Bloemfontein.
That left Fourie with the unenviable task of having to start his tenure with five games away from home, of which only the visit to Ospreys yielded a positive result.
By the time the virus suspended the tournament, a record of three wins from three had transformed into just six triumphs from 13.
Then came the respective dramas of losing two of his top players, hooker Joseph Dweba to Bordeaux and lock Sintu Manjezi to the Bulls.
“Let’s just say it wasn’t an easy start,” Fourie told Sport24 candidly.
Yet that’s about the only thing he mentions from what has been an undeniably challenging period.
Fourie only looks forward.
“I’m not sure we’ll complete the current season, but I also don’t believe we couldn’t have made a decent fist it should we have continued playing,” he said.
“It wasn’t easy having to deal with five consecutive matches overseas, yet six of our last eight games would’ve been at the Free State Stadium. Currently we’re just two points adrift from a playoff spot. I truly believe we would’ve been very much in the shake-up.”
Instead, Fourie has been spending the past four months engaging in a variety of tasks that make him sound more like a director of rugby than merely a head coach.
Frans Steyn (Montpellier), Jeandre Rudolph (Pumas), Chucky van der Westhuizen (Bulls), Howard Mnisi (Southern Kings), Reniel Hugo (Toyota Verblitz), Carl Wegner (Toyota Verblitz), Rosko Specman (Bulls), Ian Groenewald (Griquas), George Cronje (Clermont – junior), Marcell Muller (Montpellier – junior), Lesley Botha (Montpellier – junior)
Joseph Dweba (Bordeaux), Sintu Manjezi (Bulls), Walt Steenkamp (Bulls), Benhard Janse van Rensburg (NEC Green Rockets), Jasper Wiese, Gerhard Olivier (retired), Justin Basson (retired)
“I wanted to take an active role in our recruitment. We really don’t have a lot of money, so we took the plunge and decided to focus on quality over quantity. Instead of filling all 45 of our spots for senior contracts, we only contracted 35 players,” he said.
“It’s been a delicate balance. When we’ve lost a senior player, we’ve tried to get a replacement of a similar calibre. We’ve also tried to make sure the junior players we acquire fit our needs. It’s inevitable that they’ll have to step up in two years time when another batch of seniors depart. That’s the name of the game. I’ve watched hours of footage over the past few months.”
Recruitment, in all honesty, has never been an Achilles heel for the franchise, who continually punch above their weight.
The more pressing matter is to find ways to start winning consistently overseas.
Fourie admits he’s consulted numerous colleagues and analysed trends to make his team more adaptable.
However, he rather reasonably argues that supporters and observers might be a tad unrealistic in expecting the Cheetahs to be an outfit capable of seamlessly changing playing styles.
There are two primary reasons for that.
First and foremost, the rugby DNA of the Free State is a more attractive brand of rugby, which suits them well at home.
And secondly, the logistical challenges of playing in Africa one week and Europe the next renders a switching of styles pretty damn difficult, especially if playing personnel changes constantly.
“That word ‘adaptation’ is a bit of a curse,” said Fourie.
“I believe any team that puts its mind to it is theoretically adaptable. The reality is we simply don’t have the time to always do it. One week you’re training and playing from Tuesday to Saturday in a blazing hot Bloemfontein. Then you climb on a plane on the Monday and the next Tuesday to Saturday you’re playing in chilly, windy and rainy European conditions.
“It’s sometimes a bit of a shock to the system for the players.”
Answers to this challenge are few and far between, but Fourie has devised a way to try ease the pressure: “UK-days.”
“What we’ll do is when we have a week or two at home, we’ll set aside one day of the week just to train like we’d train overseas. It’s a way of getting the players a bit more used to what is expected of them in European conditions.
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“It’s not foolproof, but at least it’s a way to be more proactive.”
It’s devising those exact types of plans that prompted Fourie to leave the relative comforts of being Maties coach – his sides were Varsity Cup winners twice – and take the plunge of returning to the unforgiving environment of franchise rugby.
At least he’s intimately familiar with life in the City of Roses – he was Naka Drotske’s assistant for six years.
“It’s been so easy to go back. Most of the stalwarts who are involved in the game here are still present,” said Fourie.
“I’ve experienced Super Rugby, so I really wanted to enrich myself by being exposed to the PRO14. I always wanted to get back into senior level rugby.”
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