Imposing Sharks forward JJ van der Mescht is far more than just a physical specimen, writes SIMNIKIWE XABANISA in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
To gain a sense of how vast JJ van der Mescht’s potential is, you should listen to some of the coaches he’s worked with, tying themselves in knots trying to work out who, among the most multi-skilled players, he reminds them of. The Sharks’ man-child is a combination of things which shouldn’t belong in the same body, measuring in at 2.01m and 133kg.
Van der Mescht is built like a man with Bakkies Botha’s bad intentions, channels his inner outside centre a la Victor Matfield in open play, gasses people like a loose forward and – if you like your forwards with a little flash – moves like a music video dancer.
‘I think he’d definitely fit that Brodie Retallick mould, he’s got the ability to stand in those shoes,’ says Lions defence coach Sean Erasmus, who recruited Van der Mescht from Pretoria to Glenwood High School when he was the coach there. ‘South Africa-wise he could end up being like Pieter-Steph du Toit, having been a good experiment at seven and as a four lock at the Sharks.
‘But I like the Retallick example, and maybe [former French international] Olivier Roumat … he’s definitely a player of that mould too.’
One of Van der Mescht’s SA Schools coaches suggested the youngster’s consummate ability to play almost anywhere harked back to the underrated figure of Danie Rossouw, whose rugby career began at flyhalf, took him to fullback and No 8 at school, veered to blindside flank in his early years of first-class rugby and finished at lock, but not before playing a World Cup final at eighthman.
If those comparisons to no less than three World Cup winners and a French legend tell us anything about the 21-year-old, it is that an awful lot is expected of him and his physical gifts are such that he can play in any position in the pack except maybe the front row.
The player himself disarmingly describes himself in the way those with endless possibilities do: ‘I see myself as a mixture between Bakkies, Victor and Retallick. At school I enjoyed running with the ball, I liked stepping and offloading but I wasn’t really an enforcer.
‘Yes, I could run through people, but that wasn’t my main thing, I preferred running around them, stepping them, using my pace, feet, hands and offload. It’s only now that I’ve come into that enforcer role, which is more about hitting rucks, stopping mauls and scrumming.’
Van der Mescht may have been that irritating kid who could play all sports equally well at school, but the competencies gained in all those different codes are the reason the Sharks, and South African rugby by extension, have a blank cheque of a player before them.
Van der Mescht was also a champion shot putter and discus thrower who sometimes ran the sprints and sprint relays; a first-team water polo and basketball player; and a fast-bowling all-rounder who hit a long ball and fielded particularly well for someone who was technically a mobile sightscreen.
It helps that for as long as he can remember, Van der Mescht has always been bigger than his peers, sometimes even his seniors. The youngster remembers a story from when he was being courted by Glenwood, who pulled out all the stops by asking one of their first-team players, current Sharks teammate Kerron van Vuuren, to show him around the school.
‘In Grade 7 I don’t remember what my height was [Erasmus places him around 1.95m] but I was 100kg when I was 13,’ he says. ‘Kerron was my matric and he took me for my tour of the school, they actually thought I was the new first-team lock but I was only 13 years old – that was funny …
‘But he only told me that story after school,’ he laughs.
The catch with being that big at school is that when you’re released into the general population of first-class rugby it can be a bit of a struggle to assert physical dominance: ‘It made me lazy at school because it was easy for me to do things, I didn’t put in any effort.
‘I’d make one good run and then I’d chill and then make another run. So it wasn’t challenging and once you get out of school you get a wake up call at senior level. You’re still good, but it’s another step because the okes are much bigger.
‘Strength-wise I could match the senior players but mentally I don’t think I was there. In your mind you can feel you’ve got the same strength as they do but mentally you know they’re actually stronger than you due to your mental age.’
An SA Schools star who would go on to drop jaws at SA U20 level too – his lineout intercept and 50m sprint against the Baby Blacks, where he burned New Zealand sevens Etene Nanai-Seturo for pace en route to the tryline, lingers in memory – Van der Mescht arrived even bigger at the Sharks, the scales creaking at 145kg.
But because strength, power, explosiveness and speed come naturally to him, the Sharks chose to address the puppy fat by selling him on healthy eating, instead of flogging him to within an inch of his life in the gym.
The man charged with that project is long-time Sharks biokineticist Jimmy Wright, who explained the approach thus: ‘What we do with him is create a mindset of health, which means we want him healthy before we want him big and strong.
‘We’re sort of driving the realities of having a big body over the span of your life, so we’re getting him healthy first and then will work on his performance. When players understand that, they buy into the diet, performance and programme more easily.
‘The hard way of losing that weight is training, but the easy way is through diet. We’ve put JJ on a low-carb diet, intermittent fasting and changed the way he shops for food – so he literally only eats two meals a day. We think he’ll be able to play his best rugby at about 127kg.’
Looking at Van der Mescht’s performances in the Currie Cup, the plan – which was stymied by a couple of injury niggles early in his senior career and given impetus by the Sharks needing an extra ball-carrier in their pack – is clearly working.
Van der Mescht, along with gifted former Glenwood High teammate Jaden Hendricse, were two of the Sharks’ standout players in the Currie Cup final against the Bulls, the former playing the full 100 minutes of a game which went to extra time, something he couldn’t do just last year.
The impressive thing for Erasmus about the final was the youngster rolling up his sleeves and doing the hard work: ‘I think he’s special, he’s really good at maul defence and the set pieces. As he grows he’s going to get tougher and more resilient.
‘But what he already offers the Sharks is good. I thought the Bulls had a good mauling game against us in the semi-finals and at times he singlehandedly messed up their platform to create good ball from that platform.’
Despite turning 21 only last year, Van der Mescht has already had the obligatory offer from French clubs, something the Sharks have staved off with an extended deal lasting until 2023. It helps that he says he wants to leave a legacy at the Sharks like the recently retired trio of Beast Mtawarira, JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo.
If he’s half as good as he’s expected to be, he should be all right.
Five little known facts about JJ van der Mescht:
- He never made the Bulls’ Craven Week U13 team despite sticking out like a sore thumb at Pierneef Primary School as a 13-year-old who stood at 1.95m and weighed 100kg.
- Van der Mescht says his size originates from his coming from a family of what he euphemistically calls not small people: ‘My mum [Santie Bouwer] is about 1.94m, so she’s quite tall, my grandfather’s also 1.9m, my dad [John] is a big guy who wears a size 14 shoe. My mum’s a size 12 men’s shoe size and I’m a size 15 …’
- Despite weighing around 115kg at school, the youngster was still pretty handy in the sprints, once running 11 seconds flat for the 100m. He preferred the 200m because it allowed his giant frame to pick up speed and momentum, but for the life of him he can’t remember his PB for that event.
- Van der Mescht is part of a golden generation of junior Sharks players who include former Glenwood High teammate Hendricse, DHS rivals Sanele Nohamba, Celimpilo Gumede and Phepsi Buthelezi, Kearsney College old boy Dylan Richardson and Maritzburg College old boy Fezokuhle Mbatha. Van der Mescht can’t wait for all of them to play in the same team because they know one another’s games so well.
- As some may have seen on social media during lockdown last year, Van der Mescht is also something of an accomplished dancer. He says he’s always enjoyed dancing, and the routine (stepping, he calls it) he used on social media was borrowed from the video of LMFAO’s hit song Every Day I’m Shuffling.