- 05 Sep 2017
Lionel Cronjé went from pauper to king during the past Super Rugby season, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG.
You could make a claim for any number of players to be the standout South African in Super Rugby this year. Few would be a match for Lionel Cronjé, who did more than just kick and run and lead his way into the hearts of Kings supporters.
Cronjé came back from rugby’s wastelands, a peripatetic journeyman whose time was seemingly up. Given one last chance after a lifetime of missed chances, he became their talisman, guiding them with a careful hand and a swagger all his own.
The irony of leading a team of no-hopers wasn’t lost on Cronjé, who saw in the side much of himself: unfancied and solid; yet brimming with promise. Like them, he demonstrated fighting qualities and a determination to overcome the doubters. When the smoke cleared, the Kings had beaten several teams by playing extravagant rugby, claiming the scalps of the Bulls and Sharks along the way.
For Cronjé it was more than a team triumph; it was a personal one too. He was the ultimate rugby nomad, having played for the Cheetahs, Western Province, Bulls, Lions, Brumbies, Stormers and Sharks before coming home – for he was schooled at Queen’s College in the Eastern Cape – to the Kings.
A run with the SA U20s in 2009 signalled his potential, but it was another eight years before he wore a green and gold jersey again, turning out for South Africa A against the French Barbarians mid-year.
It got better. He was called up for a Springbok training squad in July.
‘This time last year I was two months away from deciding whether to give up,’ he says wistfully in the days after the Kings played their final Super Rugby game. He was busy packing for yet another unlikely adventure: heading east to Japan to hook up with former Montpellier coach Jake White’s Toyota Verblitz.
Fate intervened last year as Cronjé had a chance meeting with Kings coach Deon Davids at the local airport.
‘I told him I was struggling to put a proper team together,’ says Davids. ‘I said I’d give him another go.’
Ultimately, it was Cronjé’s wife, Teagan, who decided. ‘It’s just six months,’ she said, unaware of what was to come. ‘Give it a crack.’
Cronjé rocked up fit and in shape and ran in front at training. He was impressed by what he found.
‘The programme the Kings put together exceeded all our expectations. I didn’t believe the set-up would be so professional,’ he admits. ‘We had no excuses to not be successful.’
At one of the early team get-togethers, Davids said he expected them to make the playoffs.
‘It seemed a distant goal, but with one or two more wins we could have got there. He truly believed,’ says Cronjé. ‘Myself? I’ve only grasped it now. Every union I was at saw some talent in me, but there always seemed to be an injury or a lack of opportunity, or better players. I naturally got upset. I had expectations, but for some reason I couldn’t flourish.
‘Gary Gold at the Sharks once told me to look carefully at myself. It was tough, but I did so. I wasn’t dealt the cards to play 10 years at one union. Failure helped me. I could relate to the Kings’ struggles; I could share my own lessons. I appreciate playing week in and week out … this was the first time I’d ever played five Super Rugby matches in a row.’
Davids says he considered making Cronjé his captain, but as he hadn’t played in a year, the risk was too great. No matter, Cronjé got stuck in and was placed in charge of the team’s attack.
‘I coached him when I was assistant at the SA U20s,’ says Davids. ‘He had tremendous talent, but was a bit of a wild youngster. He had natural instincts, but from time to time he lacked composure. I know sometimes he’ll drive me crazy, but I can’t teach people to be clever and brave, and then tell them to be conservative when they try something. Rather, I worked on his decision-making. It was a simple plan and I made him leader of our attack, driving the message every week.’
When Schalk Ferreira, the captain, became injured, Cronjé was appointed to the top job. Davids was blown away by his captain, who led from the front and was a commanding presence with the media and public.
‘He gained lots of respect. And we kept building our relationship. Others grew around him too. [Scrumhalf] Louis Schreuder was tremendous this year. I’m not sure there was a better combination in Super Rugby.’
Cronjé embraced his role. ‘Leadership fell into my lap. I’m grateful because captaincy helped my game. At the Kings we were very mixed. Some players weren’t highly rated. I’ve experienced that; I knew how to deal with it.’
For a player long considered solid rather than spectacular, Cronjé tore up the playbook this season. He attacked with verve and imagination, most memorably producing a round-the-body pass against the Force.
The clip became a hit on social media and put to bed any suggestions that he was one-dimensional. It surprised everyone, but not Cronjé.
‘I used to do those things at Queen’s College,’ he explains matter-of-factly.
The point, though, was that the team was given its freedom under attack coach Dave Williams, who previously spent time coaching at Bath and in Japan. ‘He encouraged us to be brave and open-minded.’
Flash – rather than fear – is what inspired Cronjé’s positive style. If that was their over-arching philosophy, it linked to Davids’ four fundamentals: beating defenders, stopping defenders, effecting turnovers and, lastly, limiting penalties.
Beating the Waratahs in Sydney was the turning point for the Kings. Even as the eulogies were being delivered on their fraught Super Rugby exit – they will henceforth play in the Pro14 – the Kings embarked on a three-game winning streak that included a 44-3 belting of the Rebels in Port Elizabeth.
South Africans at large got behind them as they produced a fast, vibey quality of play that brought favourable results. Cronjé, having come along for the ride, ended up driving the bus – and loving it.
‘It’s been great. I just want to be playing as much as I can. I missed a lot through the years; I want to enjoy my rugby and not get caught up in the hype. One of my goals is to be a Bok.’
The itinerant player’s calendar is fuller than ever. Having come full circle, the 28-year-old pivot often yearns for the peace and solitude of his family home at Northern Bay in the Transkei; with some golf or hunting thrown in for good measure. When he does finally settle, he’ll be able to reflect on an extraordinary journey that has revealed a unique fighting spirit.
– This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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