My Lions Moment: Pierre Spies
As South Africa celebrated their 2007 World Cup success, those with an eagle eye would have spotted a 22-year-old on the fringes looking slightly out of place.
Pierre Spies, the muscular No.8, was in Paris when South Africa beat England 15-6 to claim their second World Cup and was on every bus parade from Cape Town to Pretoria as the Springboks basked in the glory of another William Webb Ellis Cup success.
Yet, Spies was not part of the South Africa squad and didn’t play a single minute during the tournament after being ruled out just two weeks before it began.
Doctors discovered blood clots in his lungs and even an elite sportsman needs to take it easy when that happens, although it meant missing out on a World Cup.
The Springboks kept him in camp and he cheered them onto victory. He was part of it but it wasn’t the part he’d hoped for.
But two years on, Spies did get his moment in the sun when the Lions toured South Africa. No longer on the fringes, he was front and centre of a Tour for the ages.
A rocky start
On the face of it, everything came so easily to Spies.
He made his debut for the Bulls in 2005 and, so quickly did he adapt to the pace and physicality of the professional game, he was a Springbok within 12 months. He played for his country before he’d even played in the Currie Cup.
However, Spies nearly failed to fulfil his potential. His parents divorced when he was 15 and, as he puts it, he rebelled, while his father’s death four years later saw him spiral even further.
“When parents go through divorce, usually what follows is that the children go through rebellion. It is just nature,” he said in an exclusive interview with lionsrugby.com.
“So I was one of those. I was driving cars at 15 and going to parties, getting up to all sorts. By God’s grace, I did not end up in jail although I came very close and could have been there many times.
“I could have been dead many times. I was reckless. I doubt people know that if they look at me now, they never know your history but that was my journey.
“I got to a point where I was sick and tired of being sick and tired and my whole life changed the day I went to church.
“The more and more I messed up in my own life, I became convicted in my own heart. It was when I reached that point that I went to church on my own at 8am and was there with a massive hangover!
“It was then that I realised I couldn’t go on like this, so that was the day everything really changed.”
Although his parents were Christians, Spies didn’t find faith until he went to church that day and it helped him turn his life around.
“I became a born-again Christian when I was 20, just before my career took off and that really gave me a lot of peace and focus outside the game,” he said.
Remarkably, within 12 months he was an international player. Spies made his Springboks debut in a 49-0 defeat to Australia in July 2006, while later that summer he was named man of the match in back-to-back home wins against the All Blacks and Wallabies.
He was set to play a key role at the World Cup before the doctors made that grim discovery but, from that day on, he had the Lions in mind.
The Lions den
Spies was 12 during the 1997 Tour and consumed the whole thing. He can still remember the heartbreak when Jeremy Guscott slotted that drop goal to win the second Test and the series.
Fast forward 12 years and Sir Ian McGeechan’s 2009 crop had all the hallmarks of his 1997 vintage. Ireland had won the Six Nations Grand Slam that year, Wales had done the same the year before and England were 18 months removed from a World Cup final.
“I sort of knew what was coming but it was still amazing. There was a steep increase in energy and atmosphere as the weeks went and the Lions played Tour matches and we got closer and closer to the Tests,” Spies said.
“It is like a World Cup final three weeks in a row.”
Spies was picked for the first Test and was part of a scrum that gained a key advantage over the Lions, especially in the first Test, thanks to the grunt of Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and John Smit in the front row.
Smit scored the first try of the series inside six minutes, while a further score from Heinrich Brussow and the kicking boots of Ruan Pienaar and Francois Steyn carried South Africa to a 26-21 win.
“There were butterflies,” Spies said.
“It is much greater than a Tri-Nations game because it’s the culmination of 12 years of waiting. The passion of the Lions fans is very different too and that energises you.
“There was a massive focus on the scrums and when we saw their team, we thought it suited us. We had the Beast, John and Bismarck and they scrummed the Lions to pieces. That gave us a massive edge and we scored a quick try through John Smit, so we had some great momentum.
“Rob Kearney scored a try and they were in the game. They lost in the end but left with their tails up. We were happy with the start but not with how we finished it.
“I was not happy with my first game but that is sometimes how it goes. I struggled to find my way into it but the second was much better.”
The second was much better all round.
The match took place in Pretoria and at the immense Loftus Versfeld stadium, just across the road from where Spies went to school at Afrikaans High School for Boys.
His family were there to watch as the Lions rebounded from the bruising loss in the opener, as Kearney’s second try in the seventh minute and Stephen Jones’ exquisite goal-kicking kept them ahead of a rampant Springboks.
However, Jaque Fourie’s famous try and Morne Steyn’s even more famous last-gasp penalty clinched an epic 28-25 win.
“In the first Test, we started well and they came back strongly but in Pretoria, we came back to win it,” added Spies.
“The only feeling I have experienced in my career which may come close to the last 20 minutes here is the first game we played in Soweto and hearing the sound of the vuvuzelas.
“That was a great experience and may be the only thing that could compare to the second Test, because that Lions match was like a script for a TV show. It was that real and dramatic.”
Eyes on 2021
Spies eventually called time on his playing career in 2017 after a two-year stint with Montpellier in France. He was just 32 and won 53 Springbok caps.
For a player who was renowned for his immense physique and intense physicality, his body let him down too frequently.
After Montpellier released him two years early, he opted against uprooting his wife and three children again and settled for good back in South Africa.
Now he is studying theology and on the road to becoming a pastor, which he hopes to have completed in three years.
Still, he keeps a close eye on rugby and the countdown is already on to the 2021 Lions series.
“South Africa are an immense team and the fact they won the World Cup says it all. I believe Rassie Erasmus played such a big role because he understands the psyche of Springbok rugby players and the complexities of being a Springbok coach,” he said.
“I believe we have a great chance and we have a great chance to beat them but winning the World Cup will mean nothing by then.”
The series will also help put the 2009 Tour into perspective. Spies was a young player on his way up then – crashing and thundering into opponents with his big muscular frame.
Today, his life could not be more different.
“You have no control over when you’re born and when the Lions Tours are, so I’m massively grateful we had a great team and I was part of it,” he said.
“You can be part of a team but it may not be a great one and it may not win. But we had everything right. We had a great bunch of players and the team dynamics were amazing.
“I believe that was like winning a World Cup. A lot of the guys experienced that in 2007 but I didn’t. So for me, it really was that big and that special.”