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Kanko a smart signing


  • 07 Aug 2017
Ryan Kankowski in SA Rugby magazine Ryan Kankowski in SA Rugby magazine

Ryan Kankowski’s running game and experience will boost the Golden Lions’ Currie Cup team, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG.

Fans would be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief when Ryan Kankowski runs out in the red and white of the Lions in this year’s Currie Cup.

He was always the archetypal Durban boy: laid-back and easygoing, with the surfer look and flamboyant playing style.

Now he’s in the Big Smoke, far removed from Durban and Japan, where he’s been for the past five years, filling out an impressive rugby CV.

Johannesburg can be a tough town, but you sense that the team that the Lions have become, offers compelling appeal for players with ambition. As Swys de Bruin, the sage senior coach at the Lions, says, ‘Ryan’s a runner, and we love running.’

At first blush, the signing of Kankowski seemed odd, but given that Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel will be off campaigning in Japan, the need for a shrewd, smart operator like the 31-year-old is obvious. For all the Lions’ excellence, adding the experience of a 20-Test player to the brew could be a masterstroke.

‘It’s scary being one of the senior players,’ he quips. ‘It feels like just the other day I was mocking AJ Venter as one of the older okes.’

Kankowski’s loose, languid style ought to fit into the Lions’ game plan, which is high-octane and adventurous. In that sense, he isn’t dissimilar to Whiteley, the man he’s replacing for the Currie Cup.

‘It’s great being in Joburg,’ says the No 8, who has hooked up with his girlfriend, who is doing her articles at an accounting firm in the city. He’s also rented out his apartment in Umhlanga, making the move official.

Fitness coach Ivan van Rooyen is an old friend – they played sevens together in 2006 – and De Bruin has long been a mentor, having recruited him from St Andrew’s and then coached him at the Sharks U19s, U21s and the Wildebeest (now the Sharks XV).

De Bruin also played for Northern Free State against Kankowski’s dad, Tino, at the 1977 Craven Week in Oudtshoorn.

‘I didn’t plan on it happening, but then [Lions CEO] Rudolf Straeuli called me. I had played with Ackers [Johan Ackermann] at the Sharks too, so it wasn’t an entirely unknown venture,’ Kankowski says of the decision to up sticks for the Lions. ‘It’s not so different culturally. The vibe is awesome … it feels like I’ve been here for years.’

His only concern has been the brutal training routine he walked into. Van Rooyen has worked him hard since his arrival and there have been moments when he questioned his sanity. 

‘He sees me in the morning and just starts laughing,’ says Kankowski, who is still coming to terms with the differences between Japanese and South African rugby. In his time with the Toyota Industries Shuttles, he was taken by the dutiful work ethic and constant yearning for self-improvement. Shown a drill, Japanese players typically do it for hours and hours until it’s perfect.

He says this is because rugby in Japan typically begins only at university rather than school, so there’s no ingrained instinct for the game or tradition.

He watched the epic defeat of the Springboks by Japan in the 2015 World Cup while sitting in a pub in Japan. As shocked as he was by the result, he was thrilled for what it meant to the Japanese, who are fast embracing the game. Kankowski even spotted passengers on the train reading rugby law books to pass the time.

A product originally of Port Elizabeth, he arrived in Joburg recently without any pretences about doing more than earning his dough by playing well for the Lions. He sporadically played sevens for South Africa until 2016 and recently took a call from the Blitzboks, who had a string of injuries. He’s ambivalent about his prospects of having another run with the Sevens Series champions.

‘No one understands how hard those guys train. They’re a fantastic team. I said I can’t help, though. I was 110kg at the time, fit for fifteens, but not for sevens. But if they really needed me, I’d go.’

He’s now around 106kg, five kilos more than when he made his Bok debut a decade ago. Sharks coach Dick Muir was always happy with him around the 101kg mark, but John Plumtree wanted him heavier, so he filled out to around 108kg on his way to 104 Super Rugby caps for the Sharks.

He played the last of his 20 Tests in 2012 and might have won more caps but for injury. If things go exceptionally well in the Currie Cup, might he be in the mix again? ‘I dunno,’ he says wryly. ‘If it does happen, that would be amazing. But it’s not on my radar for the moment.’

De Bruin believes the Lions have made a shrewd investment. ‘He’s a real team man and I expect him to fit in easily,’ he says. ‘Apart from his experience, he’s very talented. There is no ego; he just gets stuck in.’

Kankowski might be in his rugby dotage, but you sense the fire still burns within. He’s chatted with Straeuli, who explained his plans for the team. Kankowski is a smart guy and wants to share in the magic at Ellis Park; a magic that rewards self-expression and off-the-cuff rugby. The Lions are his kind of team, free-wheeling and fierce. The boy from the beach couldn’t be happier.

– This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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