Former Sharks flank Jean Deysel joined a large South African contingent at Ulster, writes JONATHAN BRADLEY.
For a man half the world away from home, things certainly seem familiar for Jean Deysel in his new surroundings at Ulster.
The four-time Test Springbok has been building a new life in Ireland over the past seven months, first with Munster and now in the northernmost province, yet has found himself treading a well-worn path.
The latest in a long line of Sharks to pitch up in Belfast – the likes of Robbie Kempson, Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar are legendary figures at Kingspan Stadium – the joke goes that, for all the political hand-wringing between the Irish and Ulster-Scots, it’s actually Afrikaans that should be seen as the second language of Northern Ireland.
Indeed, deposited into a dressing room alongside former Sharks teammates Marcell Coetzee, Louis Ludik and Wiehahn Herbst, his early months could hardly be described as a culture shock.
‘When people you know have been through it all before, it makes the transition a lot easier on and off the field,’ Deysel says of a move that materialised only after the planned signing of his compatriot Arno Botha collapsed, due to injury.
‘It’s funny, that link between the Sharks and Ulster. I’d played with a lot of guys here before and they always had great things to say about the club, but also the people and the town.
‘It’s why I always had it in the back of my mind that if I were to play overseas, Ulster would be high up the list. When it became a reality, it almost felt too good to be true. It was an easy decision. I felt really bad for Arno, obviously, but it was something I had to grab with both hands.’
While some of his fellow South Africans have retreated far outside the city limits in an effort to recreate the feel of home – Coetzee has been known to post selfies of himself with the local livestock on the farms surrounding his remote Dromara home – Deysel believed that his wife Cindi, and the pair’s three-year-old son Zanru, would be more comfortable in the heart of Northern Ireland’s largest city.
‘For me, when the family is happy, that’s when I’m happy, and they are really enjoying it here,’ he says. ‘My wife knew Louis Ludik’s wife and Wiehahn Herbst’s wife from the Sharks days so it was good for her to be close to them.
‘When I came over, Marcell told me how far away he is from training and I just thought “that’s not for me”. I don’t like the commute. We’re close to the stadium and everything, but it’s also close to a good school for my son and that was the big thing. It’s just easier for the family to be in the city; to have people around who can help with the little things we don’t know about.’
One thing that did need a quick explanation, was the moniker bestowed on him by his new teammates. With the old-school 32-year-old shunning social media – he has never tweeted despite his dormant account amassing over 2 500 followers – he had already occasionally found himself confused when jokes from WhatsApp were brought into the dressing room, but the new nickname was certainly a head-scratcher.
It was battering ram centre Stuart McCloskey who first greeted him with a cheerful ‘Big Red Deysel’, a play on red diesel, the low-tax fuel for farmers and construction workers, as well as some law-breaking road users, in this part of the world.
‘Even when it was explained to me, I still didn’t really understand,’ he says with a laugh. ‘Red diesel? I had to ask what they were talking about … they seemed to find it funny, though.
‘My middle name is Roy too, so all my kit was already initialled with JRD. I think that’s me now; it’s stuck. But it’s fine, the guys are great.’
And soon, the roles will be reversed with Deysel, and his many fellow South Africans, acting as tour guides for their Irish teammates when the team travels to Port Elizabeth for the first time in early-November.
The off-season reconstruction of what is now the Pro14 left Deysel in the unexpected position of making his Ulster debut against the Cheetahs, a side against whom he scored his first Super Rugby try. He’s now looking forward to a trip to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and the tussle with the Kings.
The man who also has a stint in Japan on his CV is thrilled to see how the two axed Super Rugby sides have been welcomed into the cross-border league.
‘I didn’t think I’d be getting the chance to go home mid-season when I signed for Ulster,’ he jokes. ‘It’ll be great to go home and play a little bit of rugby in South Africa again. If I make that team, I’ll be looking forward to getting on the plane with the boys and heading to PE.
‘As soon as the Cheetahs and Kings came in, I thought it would be great. I never imagined I’d be playing against the Cheetahs in my first game either; I thought I was done with them!
‘But it’s great for South Africa. Bloemfontein is one of the biggest producers of players in the country and Port Elizabeth has been a phenomenal province for developing players. It would have been a real shame to lose that.
‘It’s tremendous for everyone involved and we have to say a real “thank you” to the people that made it happen. I think it’s good for Irish rugby too, to add in that little bit of what we bring in South Africa.’
Sounds like a formula that Ulster have been using for years.
ULSTER’S SOUTH AFRICAN CONTINGENT
The 28-time capped Springbok has endured a rotten run of injuries since signing for Ulster from the Sharks. A knee injury in his final game in Durban required an ACL surgery and when he eventually did make his debut, his first campaign in Belfast lasted just four games before he had to go under the knife again. He started this season strongly against the Cheetahs, but was soon on the shelf again.
The former Sharks utility back has been a firm favourite at Kingspan Stadium since arriving in 2014 from French side Agen. Having originally arrived on a two-year deal, he has since signed two extensions with his current deal running until 2020. Wife Chame gave birth to the couple’s first son Leo in 2015. ‘My family and I really enjoy Belfast and we feel at home here,’ said Ludik.
The ever reliable backup to Ireland and Ulster captain Rory Best, Herring has made well over 100 appearances for the province since coming to Belfast via London Irish in 2012. The 27-year-old hooker was named co-captain along with Andrew Trimble for the 2016-17 season and, qualifying through grandparents rather than residency, won a solitary Ireland cap on the tour to Argentina in 2014.
The former Stormers man has been with Ulster so long, he feels a part of the furniture in Belfast. Having arrived in 2008, he will soon become the first non-native Ulsterman to represent the province 200 times. A versatile player, Ulster’s coaching ticket of Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes are now mainly using him as a second-rower. Irish qualified via residency, he was capped twice in 2014, while he has a stake in local restaurant and wine companies.
Yet another former Shark who calls Ulster home. The 29-year-old’s first year in the province augured well, and he was even name-checked by national coach Joe Schmidt as one for the future, but his two subsequent campaigns were riddled with injury. He has started 2017-18 well, though, and will be yearning for a healthy season. Having qualified for Test duty in the European summer, he has yet to have any involvement in any Ireland camps.
SCHALK VAN DER MERWE
Having already played in Europe with Montpellier, the loosehead nicknamed “Die Hond” moved back north after a spell with the Kings last season. Awaiting his debut after arriving with a shoulder injury, Van der Merwe could theoretically be one of the final ‘three-year project players’ after moving to Belfast before the change to World Rugby residency laws comes into effect.
– This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine