Chasing the dream

Cheetahs centre Johann Sadie desperately wants to play for the Springboks, writes ZELÍM NEL.

It is said that adversity produces perseverance, character and hope, and the evidence of all three of these traits in Johann Sadie talks to his growth since unliking the Stormers’ Facebook page at the end of 2011.

‘Over the years, I think I’ve matured as a person and in the way I play the game,’ says the 25-year-old Cheetahs centre. 

Despite being overlooked for Springbok selection again this year, losing out to one of his best friends in a race for South Africa’s No 13 jersey, and playing for the worst team in Super Rugby, Sadie is not bitter or disillusioned.

‘I’m patient,’ he says with steely conviction.

It’s been a bumpy ride for Sadie, but he has never given up on his boyhood aspirations of belting out the national anthem in the green and gold jersey. And that is why, while many of his contemporaries deal with rejection by booking a one-way ticket to cash-flush Europe, Sadie wants to stick around.

‘I still dream of playing for South Africa,’ he says. ‘My Cheetahs contract is coming to an end this year, but I’d like to stay for another year, and a big part of that decision is my dream to play for the Boks.’

Sadie was at his family home in Malmesbury, 65 clicks north of Cape Town, where he had his feet up enjoying the start of a month-long Super Rugby break, necessitated by the June Test window. Or at least he should have been. Instead, he answered the phone with the enthusiasm of a player clutching a packed tog bag, anticipating news of a Bok call-up.

‘My goal is just to get into the World Cup squad next year and I’m not looking past that at this stage. I know it won’t be easy, but I believe I can make it. I approach every weekend like it’s an opportunity to show I’m good enough to play for the Springboks.’

That seems more far-fetched now than it did 12 months ago.

‘Last year, when the Cheetahs did well, Johann had a brilliant season and he was very close to making the team,’ says Bok coach Heyneke Meyer. ‘It was between him and JJ Engelbrecht, and JJ got the nod. But it could have gone either way.’

'I approach every weekend like it’s an opportunity to show I’m good enough to play for the Springboks’

Sadie scored five tries in 17 matches as the sixth-placed Cheetahs produced their first run into Super Rugby’s play-offs and best finish in team history. His red-hot form appeared to vindicate the decision to change teams twice in as many seasons.

Frustrated with the glass ceiling at the Stormers, Sadie and Engelbrecht, good mates away from the game, waved goodbye to Cape Town and joined the Bulls in 2012 on the promise of playing time.

‘I wanted to start and to show that I was good enough, even then, to play for the Boks,’ says Sadie. ‘But it didn’t go as planned. I had two big injuries that year ­– a dislocated AC joint [shoulder] and then I broke my left ankle in June. I lost my form. It wasn’t a great year for me.’

Fighting a losing battle with injuries, Sadie played in fits and starts. Engelbrecht made the most of the resultant opportunities, ending the season with eight starts, Meyer’s attention and eventually a Test debut off the bench in a 27-6 win against Argentina at Newlands.

‘JJ and I will always be good mates,’ Sadie says. ‘He’s a very good guy and, even though it’s not always easy seeing him out there with the Boks, he’s really deserved it.’

Faced with the prospect of having to battle his friend for playing time at the Bulls, Sadie requested an early release and then moved office to Bloemfontein last year.

‘The Cheetahs’ style of play suits me more, they play such free rugby. I love the running, attacking game, and playing such an open style makes it easier to get hold of the ball and be part of it. Playing with guys like Willie le Roux and Raymond Rhule … if they had it their way, they’d run the ball from their own tryline every time!’

As far as public perception is concerned, Sadie has been painted with the same brush – he’s viewed as a proponent of the Cheetahs’ devil-may-care approach to risk management – which may explain why he has yet to find the stairway to higher honours as his stock has plummeted in a defensively porous team with a record of three wins in 14 matches, and a seat in Super Rugby’s basement.

‘Rugby is my passion, not my job,’ says Sadie. ‘But I’m not that young kid who just wants to run the ball from everywhere anymore. I can follow the instructions of a coach who wants to play a certain way.’

Meyer is one such coach, and he believes in Sadie’s potential.

‘When a team struggles, it makes it a little bit more difficult to play because you don’t really score the tries you can and you’re always under pressure.

‘But I believe the Cheetahs will come back to their best and Johann is young enough and good enough to play for South Africa. He’s always got a chance because he’s a very good runner and creator, and he’s got good hands.’

In May, Sadie didn’t even crack an invite to Meyer’s enlarged Bok training camp in Durban, but he’s not about to unpack his standby tog bag, or turn the lights off on his dream.

‘I get my hope from the right place,’ Sadie says. ‘And I’ll always believe I can play for the Springboks.’

– This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt