Ryan Kankowski is enjoying the new Sharks environment, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Kankowski can’t forget about what transpired in 2013, but wants to believe the 2014 season will bring more happiness and success. The Sharks have a new coach and a fresh attitude, and have been widely tipped to win the Super Rugby competition. There are a number of reasons to feel optimistic and, especially in Kankowski’s case, hopeful that 2014 will be a watershed year.
In 2007 Kankowski epitomised a new breed of player, one who would surely star in many monumental victories in the years to come. Then Springbok coach Jake White recognised this explosive quality and selected Kankowski for South Africa’s final game of the season against Wales. The result of this fixture was never in doubt, although the performance would be one to savour. Those who witnessed Kankowski in full flight at the Millennium Stadium would swear he was destined for great things in the green and gold jersey.
Unfortunately, the prophecy has not yet come to pass. Kankowski may have enjoyed some success at Super Rugby level over the past seven years, but he has never delivered on his promise as an exceptional Test player. The stats support this assertion, confirming he has been used sparingly since that heady night in Cardiff. Kankowski has made just 20 Test appearances, 13 of those as a substitute.
In 2013, he was part of a Sharks side that struggled in the Super Rugby competition and eventually finished eighth on the overall log. After some disappointing early losses, the media and public searched for answers, while coach John Plumtree pointed a finger of blame at some of his players. Kankowski was openly criticised for a perceived lack of conditioning that was, according to Plumtree, the result of spending the Super Rugby off-season playing rugby in Japan’s Top League. It wasn’t long after this statement that the player and coach fell out, and Kankowski was omitted from the Sharks squad selected to tour Australasia.
It was news to Kankowski that he was unfit. Plumtree’s opinion would again be challenged when Bok coach Heyneke Meyer went on record saying he would consider Kankowski for national selection. It begged the question: If Kankowski was fit enough for the Boks, how could he possibly be unfit for the Sharks?
Since Plumtree’s exit, the Sharks have won the Currie Cup, and installed a new Super Rugby coach in White. The new order has recognised Kankowski’s desire to compete abroad. In turn, the player is determined to repay that understanding and faith with an all-out performance in 2014.
‘The Sharks and Durban have been my home for the past 10 years, but coming home this time has been different,’ Kankowski tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘It’s just an incredibly professional set-up. Everybody seems so happy. Everybody knows where they stand, what we want as a team, and what we have to do to get there. It may seem like these are small things, but they make a big difference.
‘Things weren’t great when I left last year,’ he continues, alluding to what happened during the 2013 Super Rugby season. ‘That’s obviously changed. There will always be new challenges in adapting to a new coach, but the great thing is that Jake has been clear about what he wants. He’s said there’s no room for reputations. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 100-Test Bok, you will need to work hard for your place, or you won’t play. And the players have responded.’
'The great thing is that Jake has been clear about what he wants. He’s said there’s no room for reputations'
White is still a believer in Kankowski’s talent and potential. He stayed in touch while Kankowski was recently in Japan, to keep tabs on, among other things, the player’s fitness. Kankowski’s commitment to Toyota Shokki may have seen him missing the bulk of the Sharks’ pre-season, but when he did arrive in Durban, he was in top physical condition.
Kankowski starred in the opening Super Rugby match against the Bulls, producing a physical, and some might say an atypical, performance.
‘I got smashed by two big Bulls players within the first five seconds,’ he says with a laugh. ‘That was my “Welcome home” message, I suppose. I enjoyed it.’
Kankowski will continue to divide his time between Japan and Durban for the next two years. While he will play an important role for the Sharks in this year’s Super Rugby competition, a Bok recall could also be on the cards.
Meyer has always rated the No 8 highly, and would have included him in the Bok squad last year if not for a contractual stumbling block. The 2014 season should be different now that Kankowski has a clearer idea of his future with the Sharks and Toyota.
‘I will be available for the Boks this year, although I’m not going to look that far ahead,’ he says.
‘I have to cement my spot at the Sharks first, as there are so many quality loose forwards at the franchise.
‘The Sharks have been good to me; they’ve allowed me to go to Japan, so I have a responsibility to deliver to guys like Jake and [CEO] John Smit. And if I get a call from Heyneke after that? Well … we’ll cross that bridge if we get there.’
KANKOWSKI ON LEARNING JAPANESE
‘We have two lessons a week, and it’s tough. You need to know the language, as there are some instances where there may not be anybody around to help and translate for you.
‘I’ve learned that the hard way. For example, during my first season with Toyota [in 2012], I went to the local store and asked for milk. Nobody understood me. Sometimes I winged it, I just took a chance, like when I grabbed a bottle of what I hoped was orange juice. It turned out to be orange-flavoured beer.
‘The language lessons are important, and what’s great about our Japanese teacher is that she also helps with our travel arrangements. The transport system over there is fantastic, and I often hop on a bullet train to Tokyo, which is only two hours away from where I’m based. I love travelling around the country, it’s so diverse; from the snow to the sweltering cities. It’s been a terrific experience.’
– This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine