Column: The irresistible rise of Tiaan Swanepoel

Lions fullback Tiaan Swanepoel’s meteoric rise is a lesson in perseverance, writes ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE.

In 1985, the Mark Knopfler’s British rock band Dire Straits released their fifth studio album, ‘Brothers in Arms’.

Its second track, ‘Money for Nothing’, humorously follows a dialogue between two workmen as they complain about the rigours of their nine-to-five jobs moving TV sets, while rockstars like Knopfler make ‘money for nothing’ from their God-given talents.

In 2019, Tiaan Swanepoel was moving TV sets in a Sydney suburb. The former Maties man who, by his own admission, had ‘never worked a day in his life’, found himself working a variety of labour-intensive jobs in order to make a living – a far cry from his Stellenbosch days.

So how did Swanepoel, a Stellenberg alumna and U21 Western Province star, find himself shifting sandbags 11,000km from home? The combination of an ill-timed injury and a maelstrom of junior talent competing for provincial contracts left Swanepoel without a union in 2019. At the suggestion of his agent, he made the move to Australia to play club rugby instead.

It was a bold choice; certainly the road less travelled. It meant that if Swanepoel wanted to pursue his rugby dream he would need to work a day job and train on weeknights for Saturday matches. The physical demands of his work, his regular rugby training and the lack of time for rest made it a gruelling challenge, but one that the young man met head on.

His efforts did not go unnoticed. Two years later, and at 24 years of age, Swanepoel finds himself a fully professional rugby player at the Lions, commanding the fullback position. The Johannesburg-based franchise, experts at unearthing overlooked talent, gave Swanepoel an opportunity and he hasn’t looked back.

Despite making his Vodacom Super Rugby debut early last year, Swanepoel first exploded on to the rugby scene in the Currie Cup with a staggering 61-metre penalty kick against his former province, WP. The rugby world sat up and took notice.

Since that moment he has gone from strength to strength. The Lions kicking duties are now mostly his, wrested away from Springbok flyhalf Elton Jantjies, no slouch in front of the poles. Swanepoel has become a long-distance specialist, landing a number of penalties from over 50m. His coaches claim he slots them from 70m out at training.

The fullback is more than a potent kicker, though. He’s brave in defence and goes about his work with all the character and tenacity you might expect from the man who’s walked his rugby path. On attack, his play has improved week on week. His running lines are becoming incisive and his support play is already top quality: as demonstrated by the two tries he scored against the Pumas last week.

As the Currie Cup has progressed and the Lions have found their feet, so too has Swanepoel started to play with more pomp and swagger. At his current career trajectory he has every right to set lofty ambitions for himself.

Swanepoel’s story is at once humbling and an inspiration for many young players out there. In South Africa we have a tendency to earmark talented youngsters for success years in advance. Sometimes, though, it takes a bolt from the blue like Tiaan Swanepoel to remind us that talent manifests itself at different times in different ways.

In these disrupted and turbulent times, let Tiaan Swanepoel be a lesson, then, in perseverance. The rockstar fullback who went from shifting TVs to ‘Money for Nothing’.