Louw: The gamble that paid off
Barn-storming Springbok flank Francois Louw bucked the trend by turning his back on his native South Africa.
Barn-storming Springbok flank Francois Louw bucked the trend by turning his back on his native South Africa to settle at Bath to play in the English Premiership in the prime of his career.
Along with Saracens' Namibian back row forward Jacques Burger, Louw has been one of the stand-out players this season, and praised his experience at Bath as both a gamble and massive learning curve.
Louw, 28, joined Bath in 2011 from the Stormers, acknowledging that most of his countrymen tended to move overseas at the end of their careers.
"I knew it would be a gamble," he admitted, but one that has not stopped Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer selecting him at flank for Saturday's one-off international against Wales at the Millennium Stadium.
"It's definitely been a massive learning curve for me," he said of his life in Bath, a beautiful Roman spa city in southwestern England.
"It's been fantastic. I've really enjoyed my rugby here. I think I've learnt a lot. I've grown as a player, as a person as well."
Louw, who will line up alongside No.8 Duane Vermeulen and fellow flank Willem Alberts in the back row, faces a battle royal against Sam Warburton, the Wales captain who also skippered the British and Irish Lions during their successful tour of Australia in June and July.
"He's a great player," Louw said of Warburton, with nemesis Justin Tipuric on the bench.
"He attacks the ball well and slows opposition ball down nicely. He's definitely a player that we are going have to watch.
"He can be very effective for Wales and a key player for them, so I think we need to do everything we can to make sure we manage the breakdown and control it effectively."
Louw said the refereeing of the breakdown differed from that in the southern hemisphere, but that it was not an issue.
"The breakdown is a little more highly contested over here," he said. "But I wouldn't say it requires different skills.
"Northern hemisphere referees allow breakdowns to develop. It's a big point in northern hemisphere rugby, especially in the Premiership: guys do compete there, they look to counter-ruck and slow the opposition's ball down.
"Breakdowns are always a massive element for us. If you have a good platform to attack from it's only going to do you better as a side. It's always an emphasis for us and it's going to be challenging this weekend."
Louw rated Wales, Six Nations champions but with a terrible record against the Springboks, as "a very good team".
"They made up the backbone of the British and Irish Lions side," he said.
"I think you will see a lot of passion. The guys are coming off the Six Nations, having done very well there, and they are going to want to prove a point, especially against a southern hemisphere side, against a Springboks side.
"I think we can expect a really tough challenge and everything leads to a very exciting Test match."
Adapting to the greater freedom afforded by Northern Hemisphere referees at the breakdown will be a big challenge for South Africa against Wales, but the experience of their consultant Richie Gray will help them, according to Louw.
Scot Gray was drafted into the Springbok set-up in August to help them be more effective at the breakdown, a major area of focus for coach Heyneke Meyer this year and one he feels will be key for his team at the 2015 World Cup in England.
Louw, South Africa's chief exponent in poaching and securing the ball on the ground, says the art plays a much greater role in matches in the Northern Hemisphere where referees are generally happier to allow teams more opportunity to contest.
"Richie has been great for us, he is a great addition to the coaching set-up with his philosophies around the breakdown," Bath loose forward Louw told a news conference in Cardiff, where Saturday's test takes place.
"Being a Scot he is obviously a bit more attuned to how the guys play over here. He brings a different perspective to that area.
"The guys have really caught on to him and believe in his views and the things he is saying. He has come up with some great drills and helped the guys develop their skills at the breakdown.
"We are now making the correct decisions, especially on defence, when to go in and when not to, and on attack you obviously want to get in there early to stop the opposition slowing your ball down."
Irishman Alain Rolland will be in charge of Saturday's match, the first time he will referee Wales since their 9-8 World Cup semi-final defeat by France in 2011 in which he sent off Welsh captain Sam Warburton.
"I think we have seen in the past, certainly in the last year, that northern hemisphere referees like to allow the breakdown to develop and allow more of a contest there," Louw said.
"I think it is a big point in northern hemisphere rugby, guys do compete there, they like to counter-ruck and slow the opposition ball down. It is going to be a big challenge for us.
"The breakdown is a massive element, if we have a good platform to attack from it is always going to make you better as a side."
After Wales this weekend, South Africa will play Scotland in Edinburgh on November 17 and France in Paris on November 23.
Sources: AFP and Reuters
* Francois Louw speaking!