Ruan keeping options open
- 05 Jan 2018
Ruan Ackermann will consider playing for England if he can’t fulfil his Springbok dream, writes MARTIN GILLINGHAM.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Ruan Ackermann had spoken of the regrets he has of having left Johannesburg without a Super Rugby title to savour. So too of the prospect of maybe not fulfilling his ultimate rugby ambition – representing the Springboks. Yet there, on a dank November night in the west of England, he put in an 80-minute performance that warmed the cockles of fans’ hearts and saw one of English rugby’s fallen giants take another cautious step back towards the summit.
A few weeks earlier, Gloucester had tanked at unfashionable Sale. Feckless and feeble, they had conceded more than 50 points.
Now, in the face of the long-suffering, spittle-charged devotees of Gloucester’s famous Shed, Ackermann was at the vanguard of a fierce effort that saw the Cherry ’n Whites prevail over European champions Saracens.
Wave after wave of muscular onslaughts from Saracens throughout the first half failed to break Gloucester resolve. Eighthman for Sarries was none other than Springbok legend Schalk Burger. Time and again, 86 Bok caps, 20 World Cup appearances and one world title collided head-on into his opposite number.
The 21-year-old son of a Bok whose only experience of international rugby is through the eyes and memories of his father, didn’t budge a centimetre.
Like a heavyweight boxer rolling on the ropes, Gloucester stayed on their feet and staged a remarkable second-half fightback to win 23-17. Stats matter more than ever these days and Ackermann’s numbers added up to a Man of the Match performance: 13 tackles made, none missed; 16 carries for 55m.
‘Tackles, carries, physicality … everything Gloucester have needed has run through him,’ effused former British & Irish Lion Austin Healy, who was commentating on the match for BT Sport.
Suffice to say, it is not Ackermann’s impact on the English Premiership that has made waves back home in recent weeks, but rather his refreshingly honest assessment of his playing and, perhaps more pertinently, international-playing
future. It is understandable that fans back home, fretting over the failings of the national team, should cry ‘Judas’ at the very hint of a man like Ackermann suggesting he’s welcome to overtures from Eddie Jones and the offer of becoming an overnight Engelsman.
And that’s exactly what Ackermann did when asked. Indeed, he repeated this on the eve of the Saracens match, though not without a crucial qualification.
‘Obviously, being a born-and-bred South African, if they call, the Springboks would always be my first choice,’ he says. ‘I know how much being a Springbok means to my dad, how much the jersey and the badge mean to all of us. I can’t think of anything better than earning 50 caps for South Africa.
‘But if the Springboks never happen for me, I’d like to explore England. I’ll only be 24 when I qualify. It’s a proud and professional rugby nation. It would be amazing to play international rugby.’
No reasonable person could disagree.
Week after week throughout Europe, teams go toe-to-toe, each boasting a quota of South African emigres. Whether it’s pulling pints in a Wimbledon bar or being a professional rugby player laying his body on the line in the English Premiership, there is no more honest, dependable and tireless a worker than a Saffa.
The money’s good and, arguably, the prospects brighter.
But it comes with its sacrifices and cultural shifts. From the middle of November the nights are long and Friday-night kick-offs are invariably bitterly cold, wet and windy affairs.
‘The weather plays a big part in the way the game is played,’ Ackermann says. ‘Super Rugby has a quick tempo; the wet ball affects the speed of play in England. It’s definitely more physical. At the Lions we played with width, the back rows were more out on the edges, whereas at Gloucester I carry more. There’s also more tackling and mauling from lineouts, which suits me.
‘The other thing is the size of the stadiums and the changing rooms. Bath was amazing. When I walked into their changing rooms I couldn’t believe how small they were.’
The Ackermanns – father and son – can look back at their time in South Africa with pride and, should they choose, bemoan the fact SA Rugby did little to persuade them to stay. As someone who had breathed new life into a failing franchise, Johan’s credentials were as pure a fit for the Springboks as Gloucester.
Even so, he maintained his dignity and spoke rather of the opportunity England offered to broaden his experience. Ruan, on the other hand, admits his first reaction was disappointment. ‘At first, when Dad told me he had accepted the offer from Gloucester, I was quite cross with him.’
But as the Lions’ journey towards the Super Rugby final continued, Ruan’s stance softened. Then, on the eve of the narrow quarter-final win against the Sharks, the possibility of a full family move started to take shape.
‘Dad said to me, “Listen here, there’s a possibility of you coming with me.” He said he didn’t want to force me and made it clear he didn’t want to deny me the chance of playing for the Springboks.’
– This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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