Stedman Gans on making the shift from sevens to fifteens, working with Bulls coach Jake White and his dream of playing for the Boks.
Give us some background information about yourself
I was born in Vredenburg on the West Coast. I finished primary school there, but when I turned 13, my dad got a job in Pretoria and we moved there. I was enrolled at Hoerskool Waterkloof because it was close to where we lived and that’s where I started to take rugby seriously. I had played at primary school and the dream was there, but at that point I didn’t really consider it to be a viable career option. At Waterkloof, it became much more of a possibility for me. After school, I was contracted to the Bulls, but in my U19 year I joined the sevens set-up in Stellenbosch. I was supposed to go there only to complete some pre-season training, but I ended up staying permanently and I only returned to the Bulls for Currie Cup action.
You moved to Pretoria as a teenager, so you were not always a Bulls supporter?
I was Stormers fan through and through. Even the first couple of years in Pretoria, I was a staunch Stormers supporter. It was only when I was selected for the Bulls’ Grant Khomo squad that I switched allegiances.
Would you say that move helped your career?
Definitely. With the benefit of hindsight I’ve come to realise that our relocation was my biggest blessing. I didn’t want to move, but it was out of my control. But the Lord knew it was the right thing for me, even though it didn’t seem so at the time. I was able to go to one of the best schools and that granted me opportunities I wouldn’t have had if we’d stayed in Vredenburg. I had access to great coaches, got to rub shoulders the best Bulls players and experience wonderful things as a Waterkloof player. I don’t think I’d have made it as a professional player otherwise.
Why did you decide to play sevens?
When I first came into the Bulls’ U19 squad, I was told I was too small. So the plan was for me to join the sevens academy for one pre-season period to improve my fitness, strength and conditioning and to sharpen up my defence. In that short period of time, I must have done something right because the coaches took a liking to me and I made my Blitzboks debut before I returned to the Bulls. I found that I liked playing sevens and that is how the relationship developed and, dare I say, flourished.
You were with the Blitzboks for four years, so Neil Powell has been your coach for longer than anyone else across both forms of the game. How has he influenced you?
He taught me that the type of person you are off the field is more important than the type of player you’re on it. And that’s a big part of the culture he has created, not just within the Blitzboks but the entire sevens system too. He’s the type of person who is never going to back you based only on your talent. To play for Neil Powell’s Blitzboks, your on-field performances have to match your contributions to the team environment and culture. That’s how he has built this brotherhood of ours, you have to buy into the culture. In terms of playing, he was the first coach to give me an opportunity at professional level and that was huge for me, especially at such a young age. And there were times when I messed up horribly, but he’d reprimand, forgive and continue to back me. I owe him.
From the outside, it seems that everyone fits in seamlessly at the Blitzboks. How was the transition for you?
On a personal level, it’s one of the easiest things I’ve even done because there’ll always be people to help, support and guide you. The culture they’ve created dictates that the senior players take you under their wing without being ordered from the higher-ups to do so. So fitting in wasn’t a problem. The challenge, and any newcomer in the sevens set-up will tell you this, lies in meeting their high standards. The fitness level and high-intensity training is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. As a youngster, nothing can prepare you for that. There were days when I couldn’t finish a training session because my body gave up on me. That’s the kind of thing that gets to you in the beginning, but you get used to it after a while.
Where to now?
I’ve decided to commit to fifteens full time because I hope to become a Springbok. So with the exception of the Olympics, I won’t be playing for the Blitzboks again soon. I will make myself available for selection for the Olympic Games, though.
How has the switch back to fifteens and into the Bulls dressing room been?
It wasn’t at all difficult for me. I returned here every year to play Currie Cup and I played outside centre every time. So it felt the same to me this year, with the difference being that normally I’d come back at the end of a World Sevens series campaign, but due to Covid-19 my fitness levels weren’t as great as they could’ve been. But other than that, it was a smooth transition.
In previous years, you were used as an impact player. Under Jake White you’ve emerged as the first-choice outside centre. That must feel rewarding?
It’s great to finally be regarded as the No 1 candidate in your preferred position. Every year I returned, I couldn’t secure a starting role because I either came back too late or I’d have to leave again soon. I was always that player who sat on the bench or didn’t make the team and it was frustrating. To hold down a starting spot in a team coached by Jake White and filled with quality players is pleasing. It’s the extended opportunity I’ve longed and worked for these past couple of years. I enjoy working with Jake so much, people say he’s difficult, but I haven’t had one bad experience with him. He’s an unbelievable coach.
After the cancellation of the sevens series, you immediately returned to the Bulls. But did you receive offers from other unions?
Look I don’t want to mention which ones, but there was quite a bit of interest. Until recently, I was contracted to the sevens, so I was flattered at all the offers from fifteens teams, but I decided to go back to the Bulls to try again. I felt I had unfinished business at Loftus.
What are some of the key differences between fifteens and sevens in general?
In my experience, I’d say the type of fitness they do. In sevens you have to be lot more explosive over short distances, whereas in fifteens you’re not required to run at full tilt but you do run a lot more. But for me the one major thing people overlook is the mental preparation that goes with being a sevens player. You have to psyche yourself up for three games a day. Your body is sore, you’re tired and it’s not nice to feel like that. But you have to switch on and off every two hours or so before and after a game. It’s difficult but that’s when you rely on your mental toughness. The one other thing I’ve noticed is the media and public are much more invested in fifteens than sevens. It shouldn’t be like that but that’s how it is.
What are your goals?
I want to cement my place as the Bulls’ first-choice outside centre, so I have to perform well throughout Super Rugby Unlocked and the Currie Cup. I hope to become a Springbok one day and if possible go to next year’s Olympics. As a team, I hope we can continue to build as a unit. We have great individual players and coaches, but this is still a new team trying to find its feet. Hopefully we get better each week and become a force to be reckoned with
What drives you as a person and a player?
I think it’s my innate nature to provide for my family. As I’ve said before, I want to be a Springbok and that’s the first thing that pops into my head in the morning. But to be able to provide financially for my family is what’s most important to me and what keeps me motivated.
It often seems sportspeople in general have the best jobs in the world. What are some of the struggles you have to deal with?
You’re right, everything does look rosy and full of rainbows because we live in a society that is conditioned to only share the nice and positive things; a case in point being what we post on social media. Again speaking from experience, there are times when players go through emotional challenges, like not getting along with teammates or management, or maybe you go through a dip in form and just can’t buy a decent performance to save your life. But you don’t share that agony with anyone, least of all on Instagram, for the world to see. People think all’s well because you pretend it is by sharing a training picture and all your teammates make their way to the comments section. And that’s just one example. There are so many other things that impact a player’s mentality, but the mental side of this job is being overlooked in the name of playing it cool and always being the hero. We have to stop pretending everything is OK, we have to be more open and honest about what we feel and the difficulties we go through. Most of us want society to see us as these strong, macho men who never waver from their pursuit of greatness. No bro, everything isn’t fine, although I doubt we will ever reach the point where people will admit it. I always question my motives behind a social media post. I don’t want to showboat on social media, it’s about bringing a message across and indirectly inspiring or helping people. If those are not the reasons, I feel uncomfortable sharing it.
What are your interests and hobbies?
I spend time with my girlfriend, binge watch series – my all-time favourite is Suits followed closely by Friends – and l love to read, although I have to admit I haven’t read any new material in a long time. I’m also studying economic and management science through Unisa.
What has been the greatest moment of your career to date?
Oh definitely the Blitzboks’ comeback against Fiji in the final in Los Angeles earlier this year. I was captain in that game and at 19-0 down, I felt horrible. By the end of it, I felt numb. I was awe-struck, I couldn’t believe it. It was proud moment for me, but also a moment of growth. I didn’t know I possessed such high levels of composure.
*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!