A family affair

Robert du Preez’s three sons are all making their mark on Super Rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Robert du Preez Jnr was shattered. After putting in several months of hard work and preparation, after making such an impressive first start at flyhalf and scoring 23 points in a resounding win against the Bulls, fate had dealt him a cruel hand.

The 22-year-old tore knee ligaments in the Stormers’ second match of the Super Rugby tournament. As he sat in the change room of the Free State Stadium afterwards and lamented his bad luck, another thought crossed his mind.

‘Shit,’ he said to Stormers coach Robbie Fleck, who had draped a consoling arm around his shoulders. ‘Now I can’t play against my brothers next week.’ At that point, Dan and Jean-Luc du Preez were in fearsome form for the Sharks.

Of course, there was another fascinating arc in the ‘Battle of the Brothers’ story that the media duly hyped in the initial rounds of Super Rugby. Former Springbok scrumhalf Robert du Preez Snr was now among the Sharks coaching ranks. A rare situation was set to unfold when the Stormers hosted the Sharks in round three: one that would see a father working with two of his sons and against a third.

It was not to be. Further scans revealed Rob Jnr would be sidelined for 12 weeks. It was a big setback regarding his ambitions with the Stormers. It put paid to a secondary goal to face his younger brothers.

‘A few people asked whether I was disappointed or relieved,’ Rob Jnr tells SA Rugby magazine.  

We’re sitting on the patio of a photography studio in Kloof, not far from where the Du Preez brothers went to school at Kearsney College. Rob Jnr’s damaged knee is locked in a brace. Two crutches rest against the back of his chair.

‘I wanted to play against them,’ he says. ‘We’re a close-knit family, but we are also very competitive. Hopefully I’ll get that chance further down the line. And as Robbie Fleck told me after I got injured, perhaps the three of us will be on the same team again one day.’

It could be said the sons of a Springbok were always destined to play the game at a high level. Those who believe in omens will mark the birth of Rob Jnr – on the same day South Africa claimed their first post-isolation win against Australia in 1993 – as significant. Rob Snr received the good news shortly before starting against the Wallabies in Sydney, and went on to feature in a famous victory.

And yet there’s more to the Du Preezs’ rugby story than the obvious. When one listens to Rob Snr recount the early days of a promising young trio, when one reflects on the comments made by Rob Jnr, Dan and Jean-Luc, one begins to understand the bond shared by the brothers and why they believe their rugby destinies are inextricably linked.

All three brothers are adamant rugby was never forced upon them. However, they are at pains to stress that their first coach at the Crusaders Rugby Club in Durban, none other than Rob Snr himself, was a particularly hard taskmaster.

And now, nearly two decades later, the brothers are grateful that work ethic, as well as those values, were instilled from a young age.

‘It comes down to having that hard edge,’ says Rob Jnr. ‘That’s apparent when you look at my brothers and the way they play today.

‘Dad was our hero when we were growing up, even before we were old enough to appreciate what he’d achieved as a Springbok and provincial player. He taught us the meaning of hard work. He often told us we shouldn’t expect any favours just because our dad was a former Bok.’

Rob Snr confirms it was never a case of the sons striving to add to their father’s legacy. The desire to succeed, as well as the dream to play for South Africa, had to come from them.

‘There are numerous examples of young players who excel at  school level but then fail to make it thereafter,’ Rob Snr says. ‘You have to work hard and take responsibility for your own career.

‘As far as values go, I encouraged my sons to have a strong foundation. Love. Respect. Family. You see these values in the top sportspeople nowadays. You need them to succeed.

‘I’ve seen it in the way they conduct themselves on the field. They stick up for one another, but they also show the necessary control. It’s something I lacked at times as a player. I overdid the aggression.

‘Those were different times, of course,’ he says with a chuckle, ‘but I’m glad to see my sons handling those situations a lot better. Don’t get me wrong, aggression is important. But it has to be channelled in the right direction.’

Rob Jnr recalls one particular schools match where the brothers used that aggression to the team’s benefit. He adds that the Du Preez family remembers 2011 with fondness, as it was the only season in which all three brothers featured in the same team. After representing the Kearsney 1st XV, the brothers played for the KwaZulu-Natal Craven Week side.

‘It was a special time for all of us,’ says Rob Jnr. ‘We fed off each other’s energy. In a crunch match against Michaelhouse, I got bumped off in a tackle by the opposition hooker. As I got up, Dan and Jean-Luc were in my face. “How could you let that happen to you?” they said. You would expect a teammate or coach to say that kind of thing to you afterwards or even a week later. My brothers didn’t waste any time.

‘But it forced me to up my game. And what’s more, it made the two of them hungrier. Jean-Luc ran over three defenders after that. Dan also had a blinder in the tight-loose. Whenever I speak about that match, it reminds me of how much I miss playing together. I hope we get another chance to do so in future.’

In 2014, Rob Jnr moved to the Western Cape to represent Maties in the Varsity Cup. It was a bittersweet moment for the Du Preez clan. The twins lamented Rob Jnr’s departure, but felt inspired by his success.

Dan, the brother with the tattoo scrawled across his left forearm, begins to explain what Rob Jnr’s move meant to the family. Without even realising he’s doing it, Jean-Luc finishes his brother’s sentence.

The two share an opinion on this matter. When Rob Jnr finally signed a professional contract and followed his dream down to the Cape, the twins started to believe they too could enjoy a career in rugby. Their attitude about playing against Rob Jnr, be it in the Currie Cup or in next year’s Super Rugby tournament, is just as pragmatic.

‘The only way to stay competitive is to think of him as the opposition No 10 and not as my brother,’ says Dan.

‘Besides,’ Jean-Luc chimes in, ‘we never held back when we tackled each other on the back lawn as kids.’

Rob Jnr laughs when those comments are relayed to him later. Dan and Jean-Luc admire their elder brother and have followed his lead in all things rugby. And yet there has never been much of a hierarchy among the Du Preez siblings.

‘Most of the time, they don’t listen to a word I say,’ Rob Jnr says with mock dismay. ‘I try to offer a hint or a bit of advice now and then, but otherwise I let them get on with it. There was never that big brother-little brother vibe between us, growing up. We were all on the same level. Maybe that’s because they were the same size as me for most of my childhood.

‘I’d often be on the receiving end when they got together in those early days. When they started to have a go at each other, however, I would stand back and laugh. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle of that!’

Rob Snr coached Dan and Jean-Luc for many years at Crusaders, but is now facing the new challenge of managing the twins at Super Rugby level.

‘It was something I thought long and hard about [before accepting the coaching post],’ he says. ‘I believe everything in life happens for a reason, and that this was meant to be. I came to the Sharks just as Dan and Jean-Luc were coming through at senior level. I didn’t have any control over that. I worked in the corporate sector for 17 years, and only starting coaching at the elite level fairly recently. It’s just worked out that I have come back to the Sharks at this time.

‘It’s early days as far as the relationship of coach and dad at this level is concerned. I treat them as I treat the other players. I’m aware of the dad-son thing, but I think it’s been good so far and hopefully it will continue.’

One challenge Rob Snr recently avoided was coaching against his elder son. There will come a time where he is forced to formulate a game plan that negates Rob Jnr’s strengths and exploits his weaknesses. Nobody knows Rob Jnr better than his first coach and mentor.

‘Had Rob played in round three, it would have been quite daunting for the Sharks,’ Rob Snr says. ‘I remember when I was coaching Pukke and Rob was playing for Maties in the 2014 Varsity Cup final. I had mixed feelings going into that game. I wanted Rob to play well, and he did. I just didn’t want Maties to beat us,’ he says with a sigh, referring to Maties’ 33-21 victory. On that occasion, Rob Jnr walked away with the Man of the Match award.

As the interviews draw to a close, the Du Preezs head down to the studio for the final series of shots. That unique energy, that bond they’ve been talking about for close on two hours, becomes evident.

Rob Jnr, the joker of the family, tells me another story from the early days, about how his father taught him how to pass.

‘I still remind Dad that I’m the one who taught him how to pass left-handed, because he used to pass inside out,’ he quips.

Together, the boys give their father a gentle ribbing when it’s his turn to step into the limelight. And when it’s finally over, Rob Snr hugs his boys fiercely and plants a kiss on each of their foreheads. While he will see the twins at a Sharks captain’s run the following day, it will be some time yet before all four Du Preezs are together again.

At this stage, it seems unlikely Rob Jnr will return to Durban or that the twins will defect to Cape Town. The best chance of all three representing the same side may be at national level in the years to come.

‘I wouldn’t say we’ve spoken about it, but we do share the same mindset,’ says Rob Jnr of the Du Preezs’ ambitions. ‘At the moment, we are determined to establish ourselves at our Super Rugby teams. Obviously every South African boy dreams of playing for the Boks one day. I suppose it would present us with that chance to be in the same team once again.’

– This article first appeared in the June 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli