Jan Serfontein made the most of his opportunity to start for the Springboks in June, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Jan Serfontein is enjoying his rugby again. ‘Times have certainly changed,’ the Springbok centre tells SA Rugby magazine as he reflects on the high of a series win against France and on the many career lows that preceded it.
Serfontein has every reason to smile in the wake of those matches. Not since 2014 has he started at No 12 in three consecutive Tests. Not since 2014 has he enjoyed a run without any niggles or injuries, and not since 2014 has he made such a gargantuan contribution to the national team cause.
‘Jan is the go-to guy in that No 12 position,’ coach Allister Coetzee said after the Boks’ series-clinching victory in the second Test in Durban. ‘His experience has been invaluable. His work rate on attack and defence has been unbelievable. He may have been battling for form and confidence in a struggling Super Rugby side [the Bulls] before this series, but we’ve always known Jan is a fighter.’
Serfontein reveals that he treated every minute of that series as if it were his last in a Bok jersey. Coetzee raised a few eyebrows when he backed Serfontein to start in all three Tests ahead of World Cup winner Frans Steyn. What’s more, Serfontein may not have received an extended opportunity if Damian de Allende and Rohan Janse van Rensburg – who both enjoyed game time at No 12 in 2016 – were fit.
‘It gives you confidence when you have a coach and a group of players who back you wholeheartedly,’ he begins. ‘It was great to have the opportunity to start again. I grew in confidence as the series progressed. That hunger and desire to make a mark never left me, though.
‘Last season was a tough one for me. I was out with a wrist injury and was forced to watch the Boks play on TV. It never crossed my mind that I could be back in the starting side as early as this June. I did promise myself, though, that I would give absolutely everything if I ever got another chance with the Boks. I believe I did that. To be honest, there were times in the recent matches against France when I was completely out on my feet, but I knew I had to keep working and trying to make a difference.’
Coetzee speaks about Serfontein as if the 24-year-old centre will have a key role to play in the Rugby Championship and on the subsequent tour to Europe. The player himself, however, doesn’t believe he has nailed down a starting position just yet.
When one hears his story, one begins to understand why.
‘In 2015, I had a few small niggles that kept me out for four to five weeks at a time,’ he remembers. ‘As a result, I didn’t play much and that cost me the chance to go to the World Cup. I was playing for the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup, but I wasn’t in a good space. That was the lowest point of my career. I got a late call-up to the World Cup squad, but only featured from the bench. I got about 40 minutes of game time at that tournament. It was a tough time.’
The retirement of Bok captain and premier inside centre Jean de Villiers appeared to present Serfontein with an opportunity to make the No 12 jersey his own in 2016. He was included in the Bok squad ahead of the three-Test series against Ireland. In the lead-up to the first game, however, a serious wrist injury brought a premature end to his season.
A back strain ruled Serfontein out of the first Super Rugby match of the 2017 season. The Bulls continued to struggle and by April the news of Serfontein’s defection to a French club had been confirmed. He turned down an offer from SA Rugby and the Bulls, to take up a contract with Montpellier and broaden his rugby horizons in Europe.
That decision shouldn’t impact on his selection for the national team. Coetzee himself has clarified that Serfontein will be considered an overseas-based player – and will be subject to SA Rugby’s 30-cap selection policy – only when he officially parts ways with the Bulls in October.
Fitness permitting, Serfontein should add to his 29-cap tally in the Rugby Championship and guarantee his eligibility for Test selection in the years to come.
‘The decision to move to France was made earlier in the year when I didn’t think I’d be involved with the Boks,’ Serfontein admits. ‘Times have certainly changed, though. Playing for the Boks is such a great feeling.
‘I’ve been at the Bulls for six seasons. I felt I needed a change of scenery as well as a new challenge. [Former Scotland coach] Vern Cotter is at Montpellier now. Playing under Vern and alongside so many big names [All Blacks flyhalf Aaron Cruden has also signed for the club] is only going to be good for my rugby. Hopefully I will add another dimension to my game.’
The Boks could benefit from that move in 2017 and in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup. Serfontein confirms that he still harbours dreams of starting at a global tournament.
‘We did well against France with what was a simple game plan,’ he explains. ‘It was simple, yet effective. What you have to remember is that we were only together for four weeks. We will get better over the course of the year. We’re not where we want to be just yet.
‘Next up is the Rugby Championship, where we will face Australia and New Zealand,’ he adds. ‘They’re the teams you want to measure yourself against. The way things are going at the Boks, I think we stand a good chance against the Wallabies and All Blacks this year.’
– This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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