Peter Grant’s rugby travels will end in Perth, writes DALE GRANGER.
Just before Christmas, Peter Grant was asked by a Force teammate if he would be going home for the festive season.
‘Well, this is home for now,’ replied the 31-year-old playmaker, albeit still using GPS to navigate his way around his adopted city after his transfer from La Rochelle, France, for what he hopes will be a fitting swansong to a rewarding career.
Barely six weeks after arriving in Perth, Grant’s ease of assimilation gives new meaning to the diaspora of South Africans packing for Perth. But in reality, he has embraced the Western Australian capital as it’s where his brother Rob and two uncles live, and is a two-hour drive from his parents’ sheep and wheat farm near Dandaragan.
Comfortably settled with his wife Leigh-Anne, three-year-old daughter Nova and one-year-old son John in Mosman Park, one of Perth’s most fashionable riverside suburbs, Grant is enjoying an easy living and outdoor lifestyle synonymous with South Africa.
‘The team did some stand-up paddleboarding at Freshwater Bay. It is magnificent with a wonderful outdoor culture – all these parks and beaches are just around the corner and so well kept,’ he says.
‘My wife is loving it and has made friends, so things have moved along quite nicely for us and for the first time on our travels we don’t have to worry about language barriers.’
In a previous incarnation with the Stormers, Grant turned down an offer to play in Japan and explained his decision with the comment: ‘Who would I braai with?’ Now, armed with a Bcom degree, as rare as hen’s teeth in modern professional rugby, and fluent in Japanese from a four-year stint with the Kobe Kobelco Steelers, the former Maritzburg College pivot hopes to settle in Australia.
‘I’ve only got a sister in South Africa. My wife’s family, except for one brother in SA, lives in the UK. A number of ex-Saffas contacted me after I signed wanting to catch up over a beer … every weekend my brother has organised braais. I’ve met a good Eastern Cape crew and there are so many guys either born in or descendants from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia,’ says Grant, explaining why homesickness is a non-issue.
On his travels Grant has been able to reflect on South African rugby from a distance, adapting to new cultural phenomena while cultivating a finer appreciation for international wines on his post-Maties odyssey.
‘I couldn’t believe the passion for rugby in France. La Rochelle is a wonderful city; one of the top three places I visited in France, with fabulous beaches. It attracts a lot of French and English celebrities and it’s only two hours from Bordeaux.’
Bucking Australia’s parochial penchant for state brews, Grant stocks Victoria Bitter, but also Little Creatures (Fremantle) in his beer fridge and offers the following critique of South African, French and Australian wines.
‘I’m really enjoying Australian wines – in particular the whites from WA. In France we drank a lot more reds and a lot more merlot blends. In Bordeaux, just about everything has a dominant merlot blend to it, which is a lot softer on my palate at least. We South Africans quite enjoy shiraz, cabs and meatier stuff, but the French got me on to chardonnays. I haven’t had too many good chardonnays in South Africa. I’ve been enjoying WA chardonnays and drinking a lot of shiraz, but I think the better shirazes come from the Barossa Valley.’
The Land of the Rising Sun was also enlightening for the Grant family.
‘We loved our time in Japan and my wife sometimes cries and says she wants to go back. Because you sort of disappear off the [rugby] map, people tend to forget you are playing. Time creeps up on you and before you realise it you haven’t played Currie Cup for ages – in my case since 2009. But the country is just so impressive and the people so amazing, welcoming and polite.’
The Force, however, haven’t signed Grant for his cultural, linguistic or viticultural skills. Coach Michael Foley sees in him a playmaker to rejuvenate a Force backline that was sterile in 2015, while mentoring the next generation of fledgling stars.
‘Peter brings experience to a young backline featuring outstanding young talent like Kyle Godwin, Luke Burton and Jono Lance,’ says Foley. ‘He is a calm head who has seen and experienced things that makes him invaluable in our set-up and in our preparation. He is also one of the most successful kickers in the competition’s history.’
South African flyhalves – unlike the loose forwards – have never been sought-after in Australia, with the Wallabies producing a slew of exciting running No 10s in the mould of Matt Giteau, Quade Cooper, James O’Connor, Stephen Larkham and Michael Lynagh.
André Pretorius never played a game for the Force in 2010 after tearing a hamstring during pre-season. Sias Ebersohn showed potential in 2014, but never regained his confidence after missing a penalty sitter in Durban and retreated to boot camp instincts – his two-year tenure punctuated by the groans of the Perth crowd whenever he kicked garryowens from halfway.
‘South Africa has got such a wealth of talent, such a big pool of players, and it’s interesting coming here and seeing these guys who really have to utilise the resources they have. Guys in the system get well looked after and it’s wonderful to see,’ says Grant of Australian rugby.
‘I look at a guy like Marcel Brache who’s thriving here at the Force. In the Cape he was sitting behind Juan de Jongh and Jean de Villiers and was never going to get game time. He played Currie Cup rugby and then took his opportunity in Perth and what a star he is turning out to be.’
Grant says the medical system at the Force is without peer and the club’s training facilities are as good as any he has seen.
‘We had nice facilities built at the Stormers in 2008-2009, but the manicured fields, medical, and gym facilities, and team offices here are world class.’
At school Grant modelled his game on Henry Honiball’s and says he had to work on his kicking in the Cape, which only peaked in Japan, culminating in his record-breaking 28 consecutive successful kicks for the Stormers in 2012.
‘Game plans also change and I felt like I was becoming a bit predictable [at the Stormers], but only really noticed it once I stepped out of that environment. I felt like I was getting deeper and deeper, while wanting to model my game on Henry’s and be this attacking flyhalf.
‘France was really quite incredible as there is not a lot of structure and you play what you see in front of you. That rekindles your natural game and is why you play in the first place. I enjoyed that, but there was a part of me that wanted a little bit more structure too, so I did miss Super Rugby in that regard.’
Now in the vintage years of his career, Grant has few regrets, but admits to bittersweet feelings of Springbok memories in which he never got a real shot at staking his claim.
‘I was fortunate to be a part of Jake White’s 2007 second-string, pre-World Cup squad that went on the Tri-Nations away leg. But then in 2008 I earned my spot in the team under Peter de Villiers and had a really good Super Rugby run.
‘There were a few older guys in the team. Peter was not confident enough in me and backed Butch James, so I was in the shadow and came off the bench. I then played in the Currie Cup and got a shoulder niggle that needed to be cleaned out. I spoke to Peter and asked him if he would still consider me for the end-of-year tour. He said no.
‘Morné Steyn stepped in and didn’t look back. All my caps were off the bench and I didn’t really have a chance to stake my claim. In all fairness, I was not going to do a better job than Morné, especially given the style of rugby we wanted to play at Test level, so I don’t have regrets. I would love to have played more but I just really didn’t cut it.’
– This article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine