In the latest SA Rugby magazine, veteran prop Schalk Ferreira opens up about overcoming the threat of premature retirement and his experiences of various ups and downs at the Kings. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
You went to a big rugby school, Paul Roos, and played Craven Week and SA Schools. What were your standout memories from those days?
I think rugby came quite naturally to me; my brother, father and all my cousins played the game. My love for rugby really took shape at Paul Roos, but one big highlight was beating Free State in the final game of the 2002 Craven Week. I can remember Bismarck du Plessis crying afterwards because the Grey Bloem boys hardly ever lost. The next year I was in the South Africa U19 squad that played in the Junior Championship in Paris, where I played with so many great players who went on to become Springboks, We also beat a New Zealand team in the final that had so many guys that would go on to become top Test players.
What were some of the ups and downs of your time in the Western Province junior ranks?
I played a couple of seasons with Western Province and when I progressed into the Vodacom Super Rugby squad things were looking good. But I was involved in a serious car accident in early 2008. I then had to undergo my first neck fusion, and although I managed to get back into action, I suffered a further setback towards the end of the 2009 season. It was after my last Currie Cup game – I can’t remember exactly what happened – but afterwards I wasn’t able to pick up my bag and my whole left side was paralysed. I knew something was seriously wrong. I got married a couple of months after that, and we couldn’t even do our opening dance because I couldn’t lift my left arm. Three specialists told me I wouldn’t be able to play contact sport after having to undergo another neck fusion. It led to two years out of rugby when I faced premature retirement and had to really think about the game differently. Sometimes rugby players can live in a bubble but I had to consider life after rugby. Thankfully during this time, though, I had a visit from one of my friends – a spiritual leader – and we prayed for my neck to heal, and it was a miracle. I then went and saw a neurosurgeon, did a whole host of tests, and was told they had never seen someone who had been able to recover from a neck injury like that before. It was such an emotional day, I cried my eyes out, but suddenly realised I could have a second chance at playing.
What happened next?
At that stage I weighed just 90kg, which was obviously super-light for a prop, and I didn’t really know what to do next. But Rassie Erasmus had always told me that if I was ever thinking of making a comeback I should phone him. So I did and he welcomed me back to the Stormers squad, and I had a couple of months to pick up weight again. I started out with coach John Dobson at Vodacom Cup level and I’m so grateful to him for giving me the chance at a time when everyone was a bit reluctant to put me back on the pitch. I had to sign more than one indemnity form to say I was doing it all at my own risk. But John backed me and believed in me after two years without playing.
You joined the Kings in 2012 and featured in their first Super Rugby season in 2013. How memorable was that?
I’ve played for a few teams in my time but I have to say the Kings are still my favourite. I’ve probably lost the most games with them but I just love being part of a team that is so often regarded as underdogs, but have the ability to pull off some big wins. I remember beating the Bulls at Loftus with a penalty late in the game. We’ve beaten the Jaguares in Buenos Aires and Australian sides Down Under. I also remember a good win over the Sharks, beating Glasgow back on our university pitch under Deon Davids. Then of course our debut Super Rugby match against the Western Force in 2013, when Sergeal Petersen scored two tries. It was such an emotional match in front of a full stadium. It hasn’t always been easy of course, I’ll never forget when things exploded with [former EPRU president] Cheeky Watson, and we had three months without any payment. I saw how guys were struggling to live day to day, some guys even had to give their pets away because they couldn’t afford food for them. A lot of careers ended and it was a really sad time. But somehow we’ve managed to fight back.
Tell us about your move to Toulouse after the Kings were knocked out of Super Rugby.
That was an unexpected move but it was such a memorable experience. I learned so much from working with someone like William Servat, who is such a good scrum coach. I played with some rugby royalty during this time too, with guys like Thierry Dusautoir. Whenever he spoke, people stopped what they were doing and listened. I could go on and on about the amazing players who were at Toulouse. There were also some funny moments. I remember getting to my first training session and all the lineout calls were obviously in French. So if somebody just looked like they were jumping, I’d try to make an educated guess to be there to lift and support them [laughs].
What brought you back to the Kings in 2015?
My son Isai was actually born in Toulouse and suffered with very bad colic. We couldn’t find the answer to it, so we came back to South Africa for the support system here and to consult a few medical specialists. It was found he had a tongue-tie, which we were able to fix. Then the opportunity came to join the Kings again. We had some memorable matches when we were able to get back into Super Rugby, and there were the likes of Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi and Lionel Cronje playing at certain times. A lot has gone on at the Kings since then. I enjoyed playing under coach Deon Davids and then we’ve moved into the Pro14. We had the new investors coming in when the Kings became the first black-owned company last year, and now SA Rugby has taken over again. I think in total I’ve played under five head coaches. So there have certainly been lots of ups and downs, but I still maintain that the Kings are a very special team.
There’s always been so much hope for the Kings as a franchise. How can they be stabilised?
What’s key, I believe, is to establish a system that is sustainable and has some longevity to it. I think for any successful side, you need to have a stable coaching system to build a culture that drives success and to have players who are committed long term. Quite often we’ve had too many players and coaches coming in and out. You need at least three years together with a group of guys who all believe in the same plans and vision. It’s far too disruptive when you’re constantly trying to adapt to new coaching structures and having different players coming in, some who are still very inexperienced.
Do you have a final message or word of thanks?
Definitely. I’ve often had to pack up and leave different teams, but my wife Chanel has always been there for me. She had to give up her job in Stellenbosch and then in Port Elizabeth but she never complained. To have a wife providing that type of support as we moved around and started afresh is something I’ll always be so grateful for. At the end of the day, rugby is just a game, but it’s really about playing for the guy next to you. It’s about living out a passion, and I’ve got so many great memories and friendships from my career, which is something I will always cherish.
*This article first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!