Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Inside the Minds of Marco Wentzel and Hendre Fourie...

Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie, and yes that's me, looking like a ghost...
Last week, I met Leeds Carnegie duo Marco Wentzel and Hendre Fourie at an ESPN event.

The night, hosted by commentator Nick Mullins, turned out to be quite a cosy affair.  Due to a marketing mixup, meaning the event was only promoted the day before, only four Leeds Carnegie fans turned up to meet Leeds skipper Wentzel and the wonderful Mr Fourie.  Yes, you read that right - just four people.  As a fan, the support shown on the night was pretty embarrassing and I dread to think what the two players thought, but in a way it was great as the formal Q&A session turned into a casual chat in a pub.

(Before I go on, I'll wait whilst you make a joke about the four of us making up Leeds' entire fan base...)


Then I'll continue.  I'd been working in a sleepy town in Surrey for the week and had hot-footed it up the M1 in order to make it.  I'm glad that I did, as it was a great chance to grill two of my favourite players for more than an hour.

Due to the limited audience, I had to resist the urge to whip out my dictaphone or take down a shorthand note in my trusty reporters pad.  It wasn't really the time or place, but it was nice to hear the players speak so candidly without head coach Neil Back breathing down their necks and forcing them to toe the party line.

So what did we talk about?  Plenty of things, from Leeds' woeful start to refereeing interpretations and even which players they would love to bring to the club.

It's no secret that Leeds' start to the season has been poor.  Winless in the league, rooted to the bottom of the Premiership table with only two losing bonus points to show from the first six rounds.  However, Wentzel refused to accept the poor performances can be blamed on the age old argument that Leeds are perennially slow starters.  His analysis?  They haven't been playing well enough, the backline is really struggling to fire and the injury crisis hasn't helped.  Therefore, it came as no surprise that both Fourie and Wentzel agreed fly-half is the position they would target if they could make a dream signing for the club.  Interestingly, they had different ideas on who they would pick and why.  Wentzel opted for Leicester and England stand-off Toby Flood - a dynamic player with a great kicking game who he believes would breathe fire into the backline.  Fourie chose a fit Derick Hougaard, the Saracens 10 who was kicking everything in sight and totally running the show with his tactical nous before he ruptured an Achilles tendon.

So what does that say to me?  I think it's a glaring admission the players are as concerned as the fans that Leeds are missing a fly-half who can take charge of a game and be the crucial lynchpin.  It was pretty telling, especially when Fourie revealed that Sale and England number 10, Charlie Hodgson, would have been odds on to pull on a Leeds shirt if Sale had been relegated last season.  Fourie said he spoke to Hodgson during an England training camp and the Sale stand-off said Leeds would be his favourite option if Sale made the drop as he didn't want to move down south.  Of course, it's all water under the bridge, but how different a season might Leeds be having now with the consistency of Hodgson at 10?

Marco Wentzel, doing a great job of towering over me.
Interestingly, Wentzel claimed the departure of second row partner, Erik "The Viking" Lund, wasn't a huge loss.  That surprised me somewhat, as Lund and Wentzel formed arguably the best line-out partnership in the Premiership last season.  Check out the Opta stats if you don't believe me.  According to the Leeds skipper, Tom Denton has made the step up so well, Lund, in all his bearded glory, is hardly missed.  In fact, Fourie went on to say he believes the only area to suffer from Lund's switch to Biarritz is a bit of extra power in the scrum - but Denton is getting there, so Fourie claimed.
Wentzel, who featured in last year's Opta team of the year with the most line-out steals, also admitted to being a total stats junkie.  He revealed he studies opposition line-outs constantly in the week running up to a match, even on the morning of a game.  Fortunately for the 6ft 5" South African lock, his wife doesn't mind - as long as she can watch America's Next Top Model...

In between being quizzed, Fourie and Wentzel had a rather amusing mini-tiff about he flanker's latest sinbinning.  Talk about a difference of opinion, but Fourie wouldn't let it go, and it was all very amusing to watch the pair step into the captain and player relationship right before our eyes.  I couldn't tell you who won of course, but thankfully it didn't get too heated and the pair didn't start arguing in Afrikaans as apparently they have in the past during minor "disagreements".

Referees were another hot topic, both the standard of refereeing in the Aviva Premiership and referee's perceptions of Leeds as a team.  Wentzel admitted Leeds are in a vicious circle and need to get into the winning habit to stop referees seeing them at the bottom of the league making them more likely to penalise Leeds for perceived errors.

But which referees do they rate the most?  For Wentzel, (and for me), Wayne Barnes is the top referee in the world, as he is cool, calm and more often than not gets most things right.  Fourie opted for Chris White because he is one of the referees he can have a chat with on the pitch.  It's funny, but before I met him, I didn't have Hendre Fourie down as a chatty type, but let me tell you, he really, really is - and he's pretty funny too.

Listening to Fourie talk of his parents' pride at him being picked for the England squad and anecdotes of the reactions he's had in South Africa was great.  He is a man who is definitely passionate to play for his adopted country and came with none of the trappings of a man who has been bigged up by pundits and the media for his immense performances week after week.

Unfortunately, Fourie was taken off at half-time against Sale last Friday after suffering a rib injury, putting his involvement in next month's international fixtures in doubt.  The latest news is that he could be fit and in contention for the first game against New Zealand on 6 November - the small matter of ousting England skipper Lewis Moody in order to get his hands on the number seven shirt.

Fourie's injury is somewhat ironic.  The flanker revealed he only felt that he reached full match fitness against London Irish at the beginning of October after missing all of pre-season with injury.  I hope he is back in action sooner rather than later, for Leeds and hopefully for England.  Fourie is a class act on and off the pitch, and along with Wentzel he came across as being a lovely, down to earth bloke.

The only downside to the evening?  It doesn't look likely that either Wentzel or Fourie will be making an appearance on Twitter any time soon.  Despite my best efforts, Fourie admitted he spends way too much time on his Playstation to get into the whole tweeting thing, and Wentzel isn't even on Facebook.  Looks like it's down to Leeds fullback Leigh Hinton to continue Twitter duties for the entire team.

That aside it was a fantastic evening.  I just hope any future events will be publicised better by all concerned to at least get the attendance into double figures...


  1. Great shots, Bamberio. I have to ask-as my wife is a red-head- do you consider yourself a red-head or strawberry blonde?

    At least you look nicer in this pictures than when I had my picture with former Wallaby captain John Eales in Aspen. (Forgot to take my cow hat off)

  2. OMG we are doomed. No confidence in our 10's. Just what we wanted to hear.