For the Blitzboks’ JC Pretorius it really was a case of better late than never, writes MARIETTE ADAMS in SA Rugby Magazine.
The story of JC Pretorius’ rise to become one of the Blitzboks’ most exciting newcomers takes on greater significance when you discover it’s not just his dream he is living out on the field.
‘I’m living my dream and my dad is living his dream through me,’ he says mysteriously, followed by a wry smile.
Pretorius Snr had always wanted to see his son as a professional player, but it could all have been horribly different.
‘It’s so far-fetched, I don’t even know how to tell you this,’ his son says. ‘When I was about six years old, we got a call from my dad’s work to tell us he’d had an accident.
He fell off a zipline and went into cardiac arrest because of the shock. The paramedics on site performed an emergency coronary artery bypass. He was airlifted to a hospital, but in transit his heart failed and he was declared dead. By then we were on our way to the hospital and on arrival, they said there was nothing they could do and that he had passed away.’
There’s a pause before Pretorius continues: ‘By some miracle, a foreign surgeon who had come out to South Africa to operate on a patient said he didn’t believe my dad was dead, but that something had gone wrong during the bypass. And he was right: something had wrapped around my dad’s
heart and the “miracle doctor” acted quickly enough to remove it and save his life.’
Even so, Pretorius Snr would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his days due to the spinal damage sustained in the fall, which also illustrated to young JC the fragility of life. ‘We were an active family, we liked doing outdoor activities together. And suddenly that was taken away from us.
‘Adapting was difficult and accepting it more so,’ Pretorius confesses.
But he believes it provided him with the determination to succeed, especially when he was written off at school as being too small to make it in the professional ranks and having to fight injuries every step of the way. Pretorius is playing some of the best rugby of his life on the sevens circuit. At 1.85m and around 85kg, his physical presence, dynamism and skills across all facets of the game have drawn comparisons with former Blitzbok Kwagga Smith.
‘JC goes into a game with the same mentality as Kwagga,’ says coach Neil Powell.
‘He is good on the ground, and is physical and confrontational in the tackles. He also steps like Kwagga and they share the ability to spot an opportunity to change a play from defence to attack and then seamlessly execute it, all within seconds.’
But while Pretorius is flattered to be held in such high esteem, he is set on establishing himself as a singular talent.
‘We play the same position and I always tried to play the way he does, by bringing a huge work rate to the game. There is nothing wrong with trying to emulate him but I can never be Kwagga, only JC. I have always been a hard worker and I hope to be judged on that, instead of measured by the standards Kwagga set.’
For the casual onlooker, Pretorius has seemingly emerged out of nowhere to become one of the headline acts in a star-studded Blitzboks lineup. Though, at 22, his rise can’t exactly be spoken of as all that rapid. He made his Blitzboks debut at the Sydney Sevens in 2019, but injuries have unfortunately limited his game time in the green and gold jersey.
‘Injuries are part and parcel of the game. But at some point you have to ask yourself whether things will ever work out. I’d have one or two good tournaments, then injury would strike again. I tore my thumb ligaments in Las Vegas last year, but I was so fed up with getting injured that I downplayed the severity just to stay with the team and to play at the Vancouver Sevens the following week,’ Pretorius says.
Powell and Academy coach Marius Schoeman decided that Pretorius would alternate his time during the recovery process between the SA Rugby Sevens Academy and the senior squad, in an attempt to manage his workload and systematically ease him back into the rigours of the World Rugby Sevens Series. And it worked a like a charm, although it has been a difficult journey.
Born and raised in Secunda in Mpumalanga, with a father constantly whispering in his ear that he should pursue a professional rugby career, young Pretorius’ journey took flight at HTS Middelburg, the most famed rugby school in the province. Incidentally, Middelburg is also Smith’s alma mater and like Smith, Pretorius was told by the school’s sports officials he would struggle to break into fifteens rugby because he was too small.
And so it seemed. There were no contract offers on the table, not even from his home union, the Pumas, nor any of the other small unions across the country. Father and son’s shared dream seemed more likely to turn into an unfulfilled fantasy than a reality. But as he was gearing up for his last few matches in Middelburg colours, Pretorius received a lifeline that kept the dream alive.
‘We had a late-afternoon practice session and when I got back to the hostel, I had 20 missed calls from my mom. My first thought was that something bad had happened back home and panic sank in. Turns out she just wanted to tell me of my selection in the SA Schools Sevens training squad in preparation for the Commonwealth Youth Games.’
Pretorius had been on Schoeman’s radar for some time before this selection, thanks to his eye-catching performances for the Pumas at U16 Grant Khomo and U18 Craven Week level. And with that, his fate was sealed. At the insistence of Schoeman and Paul Delport, Pretorius joined the sevens academy in Stellenbosch. Admittedly, he had his reservations about the sudden switch in format, but three years later his calculated risk paid off when he debuted for the Springbok Sevens just four days after his 21st birthday.
‘Making that transition wasn’t easy and it got even tougher when I started practising with the Blitzboks. Mondays are reserved for what we call ‘wrestling day’; a day when we focus on fitness only. There I was, fresh out of high school and I didn’t know what to expect, certainly not a routine that was such a shock to my system that I gagged in front of everyone,’ he reveals. ‘And that’s not even the most embarrassing part. From the day
I arrived in Stellenbosch in 2016, I puked every Monday until it stopped late last year, when my body was finally used to the drills. It didn’t matter if I trained with academy, the Blitzboks or if they trained together, I was sick every Monday. They used to leave two doors open in case someone had to run out when he felt sick and now the doors are closed, so I have a sneaky suspicion the doors were left open solely for my benefit,’ Pretorius says a bit sheepishly.
From such inauspicious beginnings, he now has his sights on Olympic gold.
‘Within our system, we don’t think too far ahead. But any player who says they’re not thinking about the Olympics would be lying. And no one says “hopefully we’ll get to the semi-finals’’.
‘Winning gold is the ultimate goal and I think we’re in a good position to go all the way. We have the strength in depth and the confidence.’
MAN OF STRENGTH
There were two passages of play at the Cape Town Sevens that encapsulate JC Pretorius’ unique attributes. Against the USA in their final pool match, he went to make a tackle on Danny Barrett, who casually lifted Pretorius up off the ground. Yet, showing no regard for his own safety, he somehow still made a play for the ball and forced his opponent to the ground.
‘The attempted hit on Danny Barrett would have been embarrassing, but I managed to complete the tackle and save face,’ he says.
The second incident was against Kenya in the quarter-finals. The Blitzboks received a kick-off and Pretorius hoisted Justin Geduld to secure possession. But Geduld over-extended his body while simultaneously being played in the air by an opponent. Again, Pretorius showed superhuman strength to just about keep Geduld from falling head first into the ground.