Warrick Gelant wants to express himself on the field, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Warrick Gelant was on a different attacking wavelength to his Bulls teammates. They didn’t know what he was going to do when he got the ball and therefore couldn’t give him the support he needed.
Gelant voiced his frustrations to John Mitchell at training. The new Bulls executive of rugby told the 22-year-old to always be ‘definite’ and ‘certain’ when having a proper crack or simply carrying the ball, as it would give his teammates more certainty about what he was doing. And he warned him not to be over-creative, because it would put pressure on himself and the side.
Over the next few weeks, Gelant would gain a better understanding of the team’s attacking policy that places more emphasis on ball movement than plays. He started to appear in common positions on the field more often, which also made it easier for teammates to know what he would do.
‘Warrick is a gifted, creative player,’ Mitchell tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘He poses a triple threat, as he can run, pass and kick. I’m a great believer that structure gives you freedom – it doesn’t work the other way around. You shouldn’t try to control Warrick, you must allow him to play. After a match, we look at the decisions he made and why he made them. We want him to be more aware of making better decisions based on what is happening around him.’
Mitchell refers to a book, Eleven Rings, written by former Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers basketball coach Phil Jackson, to highlight how structure can bring the best out of a special player and a team. In it, Jackson discusses the importance of assistant coach Tex Winter’s triangle offence, which included the great Michael Jordan.
‘They established an attacking structure that allowed Jordan to express himself, while helping his teammates to work with him and be on the same wavelength,’ says Mitchell. ‘If opposition teams focused on Jordan, it created more space for his teammates.’
Gelant was certainly able to express himself in the Currie Cup for a Blue Bulls team that scored the most tries and points during the league stage. The fullback finished as the tournament’s top try-scorer (10), while making the most running metres and linebreaks, and the second-most tackle breaks and offloads.
It came as little surprise when Gelant received his first Springbok call-up, for the four-match end-of-year tour. Realising his Bok dream was especially satisfying for him because of the nightmare 2016 season he’d had to endure.
Gelant broke his jaw during the Bulls’ shock loss to the Sunwolves in late-March last year while attempting to make a tackle. He went for surgery the following week and let it heal over the next month. Just before he was set to return for the Blue Bulls in a Currie Cup Qualifier match, he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a training session and was ruled out for the rest of the season. He had leaped into the air to catch the ball, landed awkwardly, and twisted his knee.
‘I didn’t know how bad it was when it happened, because I had never injured a knee before, but it was quite sore,’ says Gelant. ‘I chatted to other players who had suffered ACL injuries and they said they couldn’t walk or move. I could still run.
‘The player who helped me the most was [Blitzboks star] Cecil Afrika. He would check on me regularly, ask how things were going and remind me to stick with the rehab process. I was also fortunate to have the support of friends and family.
‘I did get frustrated at times,’ he adds, ‘but I never got negative or doubted the rehab process. I knew some players who had suffered ACL injuries and never made an impact at a high level of the game again, but I used that as motivation. When I got tired, I reminded myself that I needed to do this work if I wanted to play professional rugby again.’
Doctors later told Gelant that his good conditioning had allowed him to recover quicker than most. He wore a knee brace for 10 days after surgery, using crutches at first. After three months, he started jogging and in February made his return for the Bulls, playing 40 minutes in a pre-season friendly against the Lions.
Gelant was on the bench for their first two Super Rugby matches, before starting 10 of their next 13 at fullback. However, he struggled to find form for a battling Bulls team that had lost nine out of 12 matches going into the June break.
‘My knee felt good at the start of the season, but I hadn’t played rugby for a year. Coming off the bench in the first couple of matches helped me get a feel for the game again. Things got better for me personally as the season progressed, but more challenging for the team as we started losing matches. We were under pressure every week.’
Gelant, though, did enough to earn selection for the South Africa A squad to face the French Barbarians in a two-match series in June.
‘It was what I needed,’ he says. ‘We had become a bit negative at the Bulls, but the players in the SA A squad were positive and confident. There was a different mindset and vibe, and a different coach [Johan Ackermann]. I’m close friends with Seabelo Senatla, as we’ve played sevens together, and we were SA A roommates. We would wake up with a positive attitude and that inspired me to perform again.’
Gelant didn’t play in SA A’s first match in Durban, but started at fullback in the second at Orlando Stadium. It took him less than a minute to make a telling impact. He received possession close to his 10m line, burst through a gap between two forwards on halfway and had too much pace for the cover defenders. The first to congratulate him on his try was Senatla. Gelant would score a second in the last minute of the game, as SA A clinched a 48-28 victory and 2-0 series win. He then took that newfound confidence back to the Bulls, scoring a hat-trick in a shock win against the Sharks in Durban.
‘I wasn’t the only Bulls player to benefit from that June “break,”’ says Gelant. ‘Jan [Serfontein] and Jesse [Kriel] rediscovered their best form with the Boks against France, and we all brought that positive mentality back to the Bulls.’
When Mitchell arrived in Pretoria in July and replaced Nollis Marais as head coach early in the Currie Cup, he created a more positive environment for the players, who began to enjoy the game again.
‘It was great to have 15 guys with a positive mindset on the field during the Currie Cup,’ says Gelant. ‘I’ve always believed in myself as a player but coach John confirmed that belief. For example, I’ve always known I can create opportunities for my teammates, but he notices when I do and tells me to keep doing it. That changed my whole world.’
FULLBACK OR CENTRE?
Gelant says: ‘I’m playing fullback now, and I’d like to stay there for as long as I can. If coach John [Mitchell] has different plans for me that he thinks will benefit the team, I will play outside centre; I’m not bigger than the team. I played there during my whole school career, so it certainly wouldn’t be unfamiliar to me.’
Mitchell says: ‘At the moment, fullback is a great spot for Warrick. But if you wanted to have all your best players on the field, and had another option at fullback, Warrick could go to outside centre. When he matures physically and becomes a better defensive reader, there’s no reason he can’t play there. He’s got the acceleration, turns defenders inside out and reads defenders extremely well as far as their body language is concerned. He can beat defenders with a running-passing game, one on one, or use an attacking kick to set up a teammate or himself.’
– This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine