Bekker stays in the game
- 09 Mar 2018
Recently-retired former Springbok lock Andries Bekker will move straight into a coaching role, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG.
Without fanfare or fuss, Andries Bekker recently announced his retirement as you’d expect from a modern, understated player: via Instagram.
‘It’s been a bloody good ride,’ he said below a striking image of his Japanese teammates hoisting him one last time. The spirit, warmth and respect for Bekker shines through; a fitting testimony to his time in Asia.
Although the 34-year-old won’t wear the Kobelco Steelers jersey again, he won’t be far away, either. Bekker will be staying on as a lineout coach, working under the knowing eye of Wayne Smith, one of the elder statesmen of international coaching.
It’s just as well, for Bekker was more than just a huge, intimidating presence at lock. He was athletic and thoughtful, always trying to unravel the mysteries of the scrum and lineout. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he wants to learn more and share what he knows with his former team.
Bekker is back in his home town, Cape Town, for a few weeks before heading back to Kobe in April. It will allow him to recharge, take stock and spend quality time with his family, one of the key reasons he left for Japan in 2013.
He admits that his long tours with the Springboks and Stormers became arduous. Spending weeks away from his family took its toll and when two Japanese offers arrived, the chance gave him a way to balance his time better. The semi-pro nature of Japanese rugby and the infrequent trips away from home were ideal. Plus, he could guarantee his future financially. It also promised a sense of adventure; discovering a new world and trying something fresh and vibrant, as his Steelers teammate Jaque Fourie assured him he would.
Ultimately, it wasn’t a tough decision and Bekker and his wife Elaine packed their bags with confidence. The first of their two daughters, Mila and Ava, was born in Japan and he instantly knew his decision was the right one. Home was five minutes away from the training ground and the longest he was away was for an annual 10-day training camp.
The three-month off-season also held obvious appeal.
‘I played first-class rugby for 15 years … the last five in Japan were the best I had,’ he says. ‘I met so many players from different cultures – New Zealand, Tonga, Japan, Australia, South Korea. I made awesome friends and even went to South Korea last year for a weekend. It helped that the semi-pro nature of the league meant that many guys would do gym in the morning, head to the office and then train in the evening.’
Unlike foreign players in France, he was under no obligation to learn the local language. Nonetheless, he tried to do so, which his Japanese colleagues respected.
As tough as it was to get his head – and his tongue – around the words, he learned how to order food, carry on a basic conversation and understand the language when the Japanese were nattering away.
‘It wasn’t perfect Japanese, but it wasn’t perfect English by them, either,’ he quips. ‘After a few beers we’d all be laughing together, anyway. Let’s just say I understand more than I speak.’
If the Japanese experience taught him a single thing, it was the art of patience. Being involved with the Boks or the Stormers, he could always reasonably expect that a teammate would have a good handle on the play. But in Japan, where many teammates were part-timers, he learned not to expect too much, or to demand that they pull their socks up. It took a while to get his head around it, but when he did, he was happy to gently help them along.
He thought he would have played more than 29 Tests, but injury – he missed the 2011 World Cup – and a change in the winds meant there was no coming back after his final match, against the All Blacks in Johannesburg in 2012.
‘I made my peace with it,’ he says wistfully, knowing he could have contributed far more, had he been asked. ‘I had a really good time under Peter de Villiers, and playing with guys like John Smit and Victor Matfield. It was tough leaving it behind. My biggest regret was not looking after my body a lot better. I played with injuries, but when you’re young, you just wanna play. I’d do it the same way again if I could, though. I’ve loved my rugby.’
Having played against Franco Mostert in Japan, Bekker has no worries about South Africa’s big men.
‘We’ve got the best lock stock in the world. Franco is so tough and he’s at the back of the queue. With [Eben] Etzebeth, [Pieter-Steph] Du Toit, [Lood] De Jager and Mostert, the Boks have no worries.’
Bekker wants to transfer his playing philosophy into coaching. ‘Work hard, be tough and enjoy it,’ he says.
Smith, for many the brains behind the All Blacks’ imperious run in recent years, is director of coaching at the Kobelco Steelers and Bekker looks forward to working closely with him. He’s enthused by the 2019 World Cup taking place in Japan, a country he promises will surprise and excite visitors.
‘Everyone is so friendly. There’s always a little Japanese guy running around trying to help foreigners. It’s beautiful, with lots to do and see.’
As for the rugby, he claims the Japanese will wholeheartedly embrace the tournament. ‘Everywhere you go, there are banners and promotions on TV and elsewhere.’
What really matters is how the team will do. Bekker is encouraged by the appointment of Jamie Joseph as coach of Japan and the Sunwolves, with Tony Brown as an assistant.
‘They have two seasons and with hard work, they can put together a squad of good-quality players. They’ll be fine.’
For Bekker, a new adventure awaits. After act one, act two promises a whole new challenge. He couldn’t be happier.
BEKKER'S FIVE KEY CAREER MOMENTS
Ten years ago, Andries Bekker debuted against Wales in Bloemfontein during Peter de Villiers’ first Test in charge. Playing alongside Bakkies Botha, he was in the vanguard as the Boks crushed Wales 43-17.
BEATING NEW ZEALAND
Although not in the starting XV, Bekker came on as a replacement as the Boks beat the All Blacks at Dunedin’s famed ‘House of Pain’ for the first time (30-28) in 2008. Despite Victor Matfield picking up a yellow card, the genius of Ricky Januarie, who scored an audacious try, guaranteed a popular win.
THRASHING THE WALLABIES
In a busy first year with the Boks, Bekker paired up with Matfield as the hosts inflicted Australia’s worst defeat since 1899, belting them 53-8 at Ellis Park. Bekker’s athleticism was to the fore as he and Matfield thundered all afternoon, Bekker capping it with his first, and only, Test try.
Bekker was a giant for the Stormers, capping 2010 by being named SA’s Super Rugby Player of the Year. In 2013 he became the first Stormers player to reach the 100-game milestone, against the Cheetahs, but it wasn’t a happy day as the Cape side succumbed 26-24.
GOOD AS GOLD
Four years ago, Gary Gold took charge of the Kobelco Steelers in Bekker’s second season in Japan. Wracked by self-doubt, Bekker approached Gold, who helped him through and ensured he produced one of the best seasons of his career.
– This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April 2018 issue is on sale Monday, 19 March.
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