Jannes Kirsten has had a fascinating journey to find great success at the Exeter Chiefs, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
‘You can’t look too far ahead,’ Jannes Kirsten says. ‘I’ve learned that over the course of my career. You just never know what kind of opportunity or challenge is waiting for you around the corner. You have to put your head down and work as hard as you can.’
The powerful lock-cum-flank plays for Exeter, who won the 2019-20 Premiership and Champions Cup tournaments. The Chiefs have carried that form through to the early stages of the 2020-21 season, and already there is talk of them ‘doubling up on the double’.
Kirsten admits that his rugby journey has not panned out as expected. A long time ago, Kirsten and his brother Frik would watch the Premiership and Heineken Cup on TV with a sense of wonder. Both boys, however, grew up with a burning desire to represent the Bulls and Springboks.
Frik appeared destined to realise both goals. As a student at Affies, he became the third member of the Kirsten family – after his father and grandfather – to win the Beeld Trophy. The prop represented the Bulls at Craven Week and became a regular feature for the senior side between 2008 and 2014.
In 2013, he was selected for the Springboks’ tour to Europe. Frik may have gone on to win a Test cap in later years if he wasn’t forced to retire at 26 due to a neck injury.
Jannes attempted to follow in Frik’s footsteps. While he didn’t make the Bulls Craven Week side, he never lost the desire to play at Loftus Versfeld.
‘My dad had season tickets and we wouldn’t miss a game,’ he remembers. ‘In later years, I would go there to watch Frik playing for the Bulls. It fuelled my own dream to represent the team.
‘After the Bulls won their third Super Rugby title in 2010, they toured Pretoria on an open-top bus. They came past Loftus and stopped outside Affies. My friends and I ran outside to catch a glimpse of our heroes. It was really special.’
Kirsten’s determination eventually paid off. He represented the Blue Bulls in the U19 Provincial tournament and subsequently the Junior Boks at the World Rugby U20 Championship. He later featured in the senior side at Currie Cup and Super Rugby level.
‘It was a big moment for me when I played my first senior game. Unfortunately, Frik suffered a career-ending injury and we didn’t get a chance to play together. He continued to be my role model, though, and supported me as my career took off.’
A Bulls side stacked with top players and coaches won three Super Rugby titles between 2007 and 2010. The franchise suffered a mass exodus in the period that followed, however, and standards dropped as a result.
Kirsten made his Super Rugby debut in 2016. Over the next four years, the Bulls burnt through three head coaches – Nollis Marais, John Mitchell and Pote Human – as well as a director of rugby Alan Zondagh.
‘The team didn’t perform as well as it should have,’ Kirsten admits. ‘The bar was set very high after that period of success in the 2000s. The Bulls supporters hate to see their team lose and obviously didn’t accept the results. We went through a few coaches during that period, and the pressure just kept on building.
‘I suppose you have to see that as part of life. Every team has its ups and downs. Look at where the Bulls are now after winning Super Rugby Unlocked. They’re on the up again. I’m committed to Exeter, but there is a part of me that will always be a Bull. I have a lot of mates there, and am glad to see them doing well again.’
In 2019, after an eight-year association with the Bulls, Kirsten accepted an offer to play at Exeter.
‘I’d seen a lot of players going to Europe to make a name for themselves. They spoke about using the opportunity to see the world. That appealed to me. I also felt that the game in the northern hemisphere, with the conditions and the level of physicality, would suit my style of play.’
Kirsten describes Exeter as a small university town similar to Potchefstroom. There’s no football team in the area and as a result the locals tend to give rugby and the Chiefs their undivided attention.
Exeter beat Racing 92 on 17 October 2020 to claim their inaugural Champions Cup title. A week later, they overcame Wasps in a weather-affected game at Twickenham to win the Premiership for only the second time.
The club has come a long way over the years, rising up through the divisions and building a team capable of conquering Europe. Coach Rob Baxter, himself a former Chiefs player, has been central to their transformation.
‘Rob is an incredible leader who has a calm way about him,’ says Kirsten. ‘He’s clear about what he wants and he only asks that you do your best and enjoy yourself. When I arrived, Rob and the other coaches told me to focus on my strengths and to keep things simple.
‘I don’t think of myself as a lock or flank any more,’ Kirsten adds. ‘At Exeter, the number on your back is not as important as your role within the gameplan. I have said that everything is clear and simple, but I’ve learned a great deal and taken my game forward since arriving. I guess that’s what happens when you’re taken out of your comfort zone.’
Kirsten has been sharing a flat with former Sharks flank Jacques Vermeulen since the pair arrived in Exeter before the 2019-20 season.
‘We’re both bachelors, so we’re on the same wavelength. It would have been a different experience if either of us had come over alone. At least we can chat to each other in Afrikaans after a day of training.
‘We often talk about what’s happening at home. It’s funny, neither of us thought we’d have this kind of success with the club in our very first season. It’s been truly amazing.’
Exeter have five Africans on their books (see sidebar). Zimbabwe-born Don Armand is one of the senior statesmen, having joined the Chiefs from the Stormers in 2013.
‘I didn’t know much about Don until I got over here. It turns out he went to Maritzburg College and played against my brother, who was then at Affies,’ says Kirsten. ‘David Ewers is another Zimbabwean at the club. We like to get together as a group every now and then and crack a few jokes.’
While the Champions Cup triumph appeared to mark a fairytale ending to an incredible story, the coaches and players believe the best is yet to come.
‘Because of the pandemic, we started the 2020-21 season shortly after the Premiership final,’ says Kirsten. ‘I think that was ideal, as it allowed us to keep the momentum going. We retained the team that won that final and we ensured we stayed focused and got some early results.
‘Everybody is talking about doubling up on the double. We enjoyed last season, but we’re hungry for more success.’
While the decision regarding the Springboks’ participation in the 2020 Rugby Championship was being debated, there was plenty of speculation regarding the makeup of the national team.
At that stage, coach Jacques Nienaber was exploring the idea of sending a large squad of 45 players to Australia. Form players who were plying their trade in Europe, such as Kirsten and Vermeulen, were expected to receive a call-up. The powers that be, however, ultimately decided not to risk the Boks in that tournament.
Kirsten is determined to represent the Boks down the line. South Africa may stage several international friendlies before tackling the British & Irish Lions in July. The versatile forward, who is 27, could also be a strong option in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup.
‘I haven’t heard anything yet, but maybe if Jacques and I work hard week after week we will catch the selectors’ eye. That’s really all we can do. Obviously it’s a dream of mine to wear that green and gold jersey.’
While a number of South African players head to Europe with the aim of qualifying for another international team, Kirsten only has eyes for the Boks.
‘I played for the SA U20s at a time when they were recognised as South Africa’s second team, so I’m officially capped as a South African and I’m not available to any other nation,’ he explains. ‘That’s fine, because it’s my goal to play for the Boks, whether it’s in the Lions series or even further down the line at the 2023 World Cup.
‘I suppose I just have to put my head down and keep working. I’ve learned that a lot can change in the space of a season, and you should never say never.’
DON ARMAND (32, loose forward)
Born in Zimbabwe, Armand moved to South Africa at the age of 12 and attended Maritzburg College. He was part of the Stormers side that topped the Super Rugby log in 2012 and started in the Western Province team that won the Currie Cup that season. Armand moved to Exeter in 2013, and went on to win two caps for England in 2016.
DAVE EWERS (30, loose forward)
Ewers left Zimbabwe at the age of 13 to join his grandparents in Ivybridge, Devon. From there, the powerful back-row forward entered the Exeter Academy and eventually made his debut for the senior side in 2010. Ewers was part of the England squad in 2016.
JANNES KIRSTEN (27, utility forward)
Kirsten attended Affies in Pretoria before going on to represent the Bulls at age group level and subsequently the SA U20s. In 2016, the versatile forward made his Super Rugby debut. Kirsten enjoyed a short stint with Toyota Verblitz in Japan before accepting an offer to play for Exeter in 2019.
PATRICK SCHICKERLING (22, prop)
Schickerling played in the U18 Craven Week for Namibia and subsequently represented his nation at the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2018. The 125kg prop also played for the Pumas in the U20 Currie Cup. Schickerling joined Exeter in 2019, and big things are expected of him in future.
JACQUES VERMEULEN (25, utility forward)
Vermeulen attended Paarl Gimnasium and represented Western Province throughout his junior career. The gifted forward played for SA Schools and was part of the SA U20 side in 2014 and 2015. He played two seasons for the WP senior side before moving to the Sharks in 2017. Vermeulen signed a three-year deal with Exeter ahead of the 2019-20 season.