Swanepoel’s rise from amateur to Lions star

Tiaan Swanepoel’s journey from working part-time in Australia to featuring in the Currie Cup playoffs is a lesson in perseverance, writes DYLAN JACK in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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In 1975, Australian hard rock band AC/DC released their second album, T.N.T.

The first song on that album ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top’ chronicles the hardships faced by a band on tour as they face getting ‘robbed, beat up, ripped off and underpaid’ on their path to stardom.

The song is in many ways autobiographical as AC/DC faced similar struggles before their hard work eventually paid off and they would become one of the most famous rock bands in history.

Fast forward to 2021 and Lions player Tiaan Swanepoel has emerged as the find of the season after producing some genuinely top-class performances to help the Johannesburg-based team to the Currie Cup semi-finals.

Swanepoel became the talk of the town after slotting a monster 64m kick against his former employers, Western Province, but his journey to that point came on the back of years of hard graft and patience. Like AC/DC, Swanepoel is certainly not an overnight success.

A graduate of Stellenberg High School, he played for Stellenbosch University in the Varsity Cup and the Western Province U21 team after school. It was with the latter that he showed his potential, scoring 123 points to guide WP to a title win in 2017 and finish as the season’s top point-scorer.

However, his development suffered a setback as a hip injury forced him to miss the Stormers’ pre-season in 2018. A rise of a maelstrom of junior talent made surplus to requirements at his boyhood team and he was subsequently left without a contract.

‘It was frustrating,’ Swanepoel tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I was in form in 2017 and I just wanted to play rugby. After my hip surgery, they said it would take three or four months to recover. That frustrated me a little bit. Mentally, I kept telling myself my time would come and that I just had to keep working hard.’

Disillusioned by his lack of opportunities in the Western Cape, Swanepoel heard through his agent of a chance to make a fresh start in Australia, playing club rugby for West Harbour in the Shute Shield, Australia’s third-tier rugby tournament.

‘My agent said it was time to get out of South Africa and get a new start,’ Swanepoel says. ‘At that stage, I hadn’t played or lived anywhere else besides than Cape Town. It was nice to have the opportunity to go to Australia and make a fresh start.’

West Harbour were on the lookout for someone who could play at flyhalf and fullback and through his contacts, South Africa-born coach and ex-player Reg de Jager came to hear of Swanepoel’s story. Impressed by his CV and kicking ability, De Jager offered the youngster a chance to restart his rugby career.

However, this would be anything but glamorous. Swanepoel reverted to being an amateur, holding down an eight-to-five job while playing for the club. His jobs included working at a company that was selling sand as well as working for a technology firm, where he would spend most of his day moving television sets and sound systems.

It was a courageous move for Swanepoel, who had never lived outside the Western Cape and had never worked a day in his life.

‘It was a little bit difficult,’ he says. ‘I also had to get used to the working life, from 8am to 5pm and then training afterwards. It was quite hectic because for the first three months, I didn’t have a job.

‘I started off working for the club, cleaning the stadium, so it was quite hard, doing that stuff, only for a small amount of money too. It was quite difficult to have an eight-to-five job and train at night and play over weekends.’

Regardless, Swanepoel kept his head down and his on-field performances for West Harbour made him something of a cult hero for the Sydney-based club’s fans.

‘As a person, he is just a great, humble guy,’ De Jager says. ‘He is a proper down-to-earth person. Nothing seems to faze him. He is making a lot of noise in South Africa, but I don’t think the fame will get to his head. As an athlete, he showed right from the start that he has been in a professional environment with Western Province.

‘We could see straight away that he would also make the players around him work hard. We had quite a good season that year. We didn’t go to the finals, but it was still a successful season. Tiaan had a lot to do with that. He made the players around him train that little bit harder.’

One of Swanepoel’s most memorable performances came against rivals Gordon in 2019, when he slotted a 60m penalty to secure a 23-23 draw.

As much as he was enjoying his rugby in Australia, Swanepoel remained determined to return to the top level.

His performances caught the eye of the Lions, who had already scouted him as a junior, and the Johannesburg team offered him a professional contract.

Swanepoel jumped at the opportunity to not only return to South Africa, but also join a side whose philosophy of running rugby very much aligned with how he likes to play.

There were early signs of the faith the Lions coaching staff had in their new signing as they handed Swanepoel a start in their first Super Rugby game of 2020, against the Jaguares.

However, the return of Andries Coetzee, a grade two hamstring tear and the Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa forced Swanepoel on to the sidelines again to bide his time. Added to this, the Lions signed Divan Rossouw and EW Viljoen during lockdown, offering more competition at fullback.

When Viljoen, who began Super Rugby Unlocked as the Lions’ first-choice fullback, went off injured against Griquas in Kimberley, it set the scene for Swanepoel to shine.
He has since set about proving himself as a match-winner, playing an influential role in wins over the Sharks, Cheetahs, Western Province and Pumas as the Lions finished at the semi-final stage of the Currie Cup.

The question remains as to how far Swanepoel can go as a player and whether we are looking at a potential Springbok.

‘He has got aspirations to be an international player,’ De Jager says. ‘He is dreaming big, as he should be. He has always told me he doesn’t want to get stuck here just playing in the Shute Shield. He wanted to get a big move.

‘As a club, we pride ourselves on that. A lot of our players have moved to the Premiership in England,  the Japanese Top League and to New Zealand, and we have a few Wallabies. If you do well with us, we definitely won’t hold you back. We will push for you to grow your career.

‘His mind is set on what he wants to do. He told me numerous times that he wants to be an international. He definitely wears the Springbok on his heart.’

Much like the group of Australian rockers, Swanepoel has taken the long way to the top and his now rocking and rolling his way to the Test arena.

Swanepoel on his relationship with Lions captain Elton Jantjies:

‘I was playing at flyhalf for the past two years in Australia, but I started playing fullback again when I moved to the Lions. I played at flyhalf for most of my life, actually. To get the opportunity to play at fullback and watch Elton play at 10 is part of the learning curve on how to play at flyhalf. It’s also a growing process for me at fullback, to get the best out of me. Elton and I have a good relationship.

‘He knows I can kick and that I am also a playmaker, like him. He and I understand each other very well on the field. Sharing the kicking duties helps take the pressure off each other. If he wants to give a message to the team, and there isn’t time and a penalty is in my range, I will kick it, then he can discuss our gameplan with the team. It’s quite nice to have two kickers in the same team.’

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Craig Lewis