Ruan Combrinck forced his way into the Springbok starting XV with a game-changing cameo at Ellis Park, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Ruan Combrinck sits contemplatively at the Springboks’ team hotel in Johannesburg. Having just been named on the bench for the second Test against Ireland, it’s clear the prospect of making his Bok debut is still sinking in.
When chatting to members of the media, Combrinck takes a second or two after every question to carefully consider his answer before beginning to talk.
‘How special would it be to make your debut at home?’ enquires one of the gathered journalists who scrum closely around Combrinck.
‘I had this vision in my mind the whole year, where I was picturing what it would feel like if I was selected for the Boks and was able to run out full of confidence at Ellis Park in front of 60,000 people on my home ground,’ he muses.
‘It has been an emotional journey. There was a lot of work put in during free time to get here. When you’ve been playing rugby non-stop for three years, that confidence builds, and it takes away some of the emotion because you’re just so eager to play and there’s no fear in you.’
A couple of days later, Combrinck’s ‘vision’ turns into a dream debut. Coming on as a half-time replacement with the Boks trailing 19-3 and facing the prospect of losing a second successive Test to Ireland on home soil, he produces a second-half cameo that sparks the Boks into life.
Making 68m, beating three defenders and scoring a superb try during a bright and breezy performance, Combrinck deservedly claims the Man of the Match award, despite featuring for just 40 minutes.
His efforts, which served to spark a clear momentum shift as the Boks bounced back to salvage a much-needed win, are enough to earn him a place in the Boks’ starting lineup for the third and final Test in Port Elizabeth.
This time, Combrinck excels in a different, but nonetheless integral manner, with his strong kicking game and abrasive defence adding a different dimension to the Boks’ backline, while a superb long-range penalty also complements his contribution.
Such performances provide another reminder of just how impressively Combrinck has developed into a complete player who looks entirely at home on the Test stage.
‘Ruan’s impact has been fantastic,’ coach Allister Coetzee enthuses. ‘He’s provided us with that right-footed kicking option and can kick for goal from 50m out. He’s shown great form and I’m really pleased he was one of the players who grabbed his opportunity.’
A few days after making his second Test appearance, Combrinck tells SA Rugby magazine that his whirlwind four weeks with the Boks exceeded all expectations.
‘Making my debut was an unbelievable experience. It was such a good fightback from the team and the passion they showed made it so much easier for me when I came off the bench.
‘I think anyone who has played for the Boks will tell you the same thing, once you’ve got that jersey, you never want to let go of it. So to achieve that dream was incredibly special. It was the most perfect day of my life.’
Although the 26-year-old has finally realised this childhood ‘dream’, his journey to the top has not been without its speed bumps along the way.
After battling to break into the senior ranks at the Stormers and Western Province, Combrinck received an opportunity to join the Lions in 2012.
He arrived in Johannesburg on a wing and a prayer. Season after season he dedicated himself to honing his craft, but he admits that at times it felt as if his big break was never going to come.
‘A few years ago I felt like I was running into a closed door and that nothing was happening. It’s not a nice feeling to have, when you’re questioning why you have such big dreams if you feel like you’re getting nowhere. It wasn’t easy.’
Nevertheless, driven by his steadfast faith, Combrinck refused to give up on his Bok dream, while a mindset shift also aided his progression as a player and person.
‘Growing as a person off the field also enables you to get better as a player on the field,’ he reflects. ‘I think that comes with age and maturity; you move away from certain things that used to hold you back when you were younger. I feel like things have just been so perfect over the past couple of years.
‘Being at the Lions has also helped so much, not only in terms of growing my game, but with the mental side of things too,’ he adds. ‘They’ve taught me to broaden my mindset, to just enjoy my rugby and embrace my profession as a passion.’
And now, having had his first taste of Springbok rugby, Combrinck says it’s only served to heighten his hunger for more.
‘When you know what it’s like to be at the bottom and then find a way to work out of that, it gives you real driving power to ensure you don’t end up there again.
‘I really want to hold on to what I’ve worked so hard towards and to just remain here and embrace every opportunity. It’s humbling to know what I’ve come through to be here and it’s made me so grateful to get to this point.’
Barring injury, Combrinck is surely set to be retained as one of the Boks’ first-choice wings for the Rugby Championship. When quizzed about the prospect of possibly playing against a side like the All Blacks, his thoughtful tone audibly changes to one of unbridled excitement.
‘When you watch rugby as a young boy, the pinnacle is to play against the All Blacks and Wallabies, while Argentina have also now emerged as a real force. I will cherish every moment of playing for the Springboks, and if I get the opportunity to play against the All Blacks, what more could I dream of? Man, that’s the ultimate.’
COMBRINCK ON …
THE STEP UP TO TEST RUGBY
‘You learn so much at that level, particularly from a mental side of things when it comes to coping with pressure. You also realise the importance of the little technical things you do during the week’s preparation.’
HIS KICKING GAME
‘I’ve been working on my kicking game for many years and I was just happy to be able to help out and take some pressure off Elton [Jantjies], Faf [de Klerk] and Willie [le Roux], who are all left-footed kickers. My dad [Cobus] used to say that if you want to play for the Springboks, you must kick like Naas Botha, with your left and right foot, and be able to kick far.’
HIS PASSION FOR RUNNING RUGBY
‘Obviously there are certain structures to any game plan, but you also need to have freedom in it. If you look at all the New Zealand sides, they identify in the game how to adapt and are able to adjust to different situations. You want to have that freedom to play, you don’t want to be like a robot.’
WORKING WITH BOK COACH ALLISTER COETZEE
‘I think Allister does have an expansive mindset; he’s an amazing coach and I believe we can have a game plan of running rugby one week, while the next we could have more kicking and structure to our play. There’s so much talent in South Africa and we must find a way to utilise it best.’
HIS SCHOOL CAREER AT MICHAELHOUSE
‘My time at Michaelhouse was so awesome; there’s a sense of brotherhood there and it’s similar to what we have at the Lions. It was a privilege to be at such an incredible school like that, especially coming from a small town. We had such a freedom to play and a mindset of attacking space. We made the most of the running game and it helped expand my mind and approach as a schoolboy.’
– This article first appeared in the August 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine