Ruan Combrinck was feeling unwanted at Western Province when the Lions threw him a lifeline, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG.
You know things have changed at the Lions when the music of Brenda Fassie competes with Pitbull and Flo Rida for an airing in the spacious team gym in the bowels of the Johannesburg Stadium.
But this is how it was a few days after the Lions had stretched their unbeaten run in the Currie Cup, having subdued the Bulls a few days before in a helter-skelter match.
Ruan Combrinck and Andries Coetzee were alone in the hothouse. Their teammates had long since left, but the pair was pushing on. Combrinck, lean and lithe, was giving his legs a pounding with squats and lunges and an assortment of pain-inducing exercises. Such is the life of a man whose pace and power keep him in a job.
If the Lions have always been pragmatic customers, they are now the most enthralling team in South Africa. The strictures of old are gone; it’s all energy and excitement, goose-steps and gumption. Change indeed.
Combrinck, 25, is one of the cogs in this vibrant machine breaking down the formulaic dogma of South African rugby. A right wing, his upward trajectory showed no sign of slowing until a late-season knee injury hobbled him.
Long a square peg in a round hole, Combrinck has responded to the libertarian ideals of coaches Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin by offering speed on the outside, a solid work ethic and supreme attacking instincts.
Combrinck is from farming stock, a fifth-generation son of the soil from Babanango, a hamlet in northern KwaZulu-Natal, where his parents farm sheep and cattle.
Predictably, perhaps, he proposed chatting while seated on the tailgate of his bakkie, but the lining was caked in dry blood, the result of a hunting trip the week before (blue wildebeest, springbok and jackal being his preferred choices).
If he hankers for farm life, even now, his sensibilities are a curious blend, thanks to having attended Michaelhouse. The august school, which counts
Pat Lambie among its alumni, taught Combrinck the values of brotherhood and camaraderie, qualities that link him to the new-fangled Lions where these values also run deep. He loved his time at the exclusive boarding school, playing top-end sport – he was the KwaZulu-Natal hurdles champion from the age of 11 to 17, and javelin champion – and revelling in the collegial environment. He was an A-standard drama student and cracked the first teams for cricket, soccer and basketball, his love of the outdoors translating to competitive sport.
‘I won every sprint race I ran as a junior, except one, when I was 11. It still bothers me,’ he admits.
In his final year, he played in a top team that included Lambie at fullback, the Cronjé brothers, SA Sevens player Mark Richards and a pair of Craven Week centres.
‘We didn’t play with any structure, we just jolled,’ he remembers fondly.
Selection to the Sharks U19 team followed Craven Week selection. They won the U19 provincial tournament and times were good.
Enchanted by the charms of Stellenbosch, the Western Cape soon beckoned and Combrinck arrived at the Western Province Rugby Institute, ambition packed side by side with his worldly possessions.
He loved the institute’s determination to embellish players’ talents; the attention to detail, the deeper thinking. And although he turned out for the WP U19s at fullback, cracked an SA U20 spot at centre and represented Maties in the Varsity Cup and WP in the Vodacom Cup, he never felt a true sense of belonging.
What made it worse was that the WP chequebook stayed closed. There was no offer.
Former SA U21 coach Nico Serfontein gave him a call in 2011, offering him a lifeline. The Lions were interested.
Combrinck drove to Stellenbosch and said goodbye to his friends. He packed a dozen bags into his Jeep and took the long drive up-country. He wasn’t hopeful. He was out of contract and nowhere, in a rugby sense. Even as the Lions called, the lure of the farm was strong. There, he had nothing to prove.
Wide-eyed, he arrived in Johannesburg on the Friday and was playing for the U21s on the Saturday.
Combrinck cracked a place in that year’s Currie Cup-winning squad under John Mitchell, although he never got to play. His big moment came in 2012, when, in an ironic twist, he made his Super Rugby debut against the Stormers. His old friends from WP, among them Bryan Habana, were among the first to commend him. Rugby’s brotherhood had come through, again.
The following season was less memorable, with a shoulder operation knocking him out for six months, followed by his ankle giving out in the promotion-relegation match against the Kings. This time he was out for five months. Not altogether deterred, he kept his competitive fires burning by taking up boxing training, which he loved.
Combrinck has since established himself as an exceptional talent who revels in the freedom offered by De Bruin and Ackermann.
At the time of being interviewed he had started 33 of the Lions last 34 Currie Cup games. From being uncertain of his future, he now ranks among those with a big future.
The irony of his emergence, among a band of fellow outcasts, isn’t lost on him. Many of the Lions’ players were deemed surplus to requirements by other unions, but you can’t dismiss the resolve of men who know they deserve better.
‘We all remember where we came from and what we’ve been through,’ says Combrinck. ‘It’s made us tighter.’
Thoughtful and determined, he has a better sense of his destiny than ever.
‘It’s been a rough road; I’ve taken a lot,’ he says. ‘If I don’t achieve, it’s because I never believed enough.’
– This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine