Springbok lock Lood de Jager tells SARugbymag.co.za about his painful battle with injury, why he put his body on the line in the World Cup final and how he celebrated Cheslin Kolbe’s try. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Lood de Jager has learned to look on the bright side of life. He knows what it takes to come through a serious injury setback after enduring more than his fair share over the past four years. He realises that things don’t always work out as planned.
The Springbok lock chuckles when I point out that his most recent comeback from a serious shoulder injury – sustained in the 2019 World Cup final in Yokohama last November – culminated in a 30-minute cameo for his new club Sale Sharks. After that fixture in March, the Premiership was suspended due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
‘I’ve learned to be positive about these things and focus on what I can control,’ he said. While he hasn’t played a great deal over the past 18 months due to a bad run with injuries, he still managed to claim a World Cup as well as a Rugby Championship winners medal.
Perhaps this is why he remains upbeat. In rugby, as in life, those who persevere are often rewarded.
When I call De Jager for this interview, he sounds like he’s out of breath. He tells me that he’s currently staying with his in-laws in Paarl and has been training twice a day to keep that formidable frame in shape.
‘There’s been more than enough to keep me busy, with two sessions a day and daddy duty,’ he said. ‘The upside [of the lockdown] is that I’ve got a chance to spend a lot more time with my family and to have a lot of braais. Those are the things that you miss most when you’re in the UK.’
Sale allowed De Jager to remain in South Africa in November and December while his shoulder healed. He eventually travelled to the Manchester-based club in January to complete the last eight weeks of his rehab. Little did he know that he’d be back in South Africa by late March due to a pandemic.
The time off has given De Jager, and indeed the entire South African rugby community an extensive opportunity to reflect on what the Boks achieved in 2019. De Jager – the standout player for South Africa at the 2015 World Cup – reveals that he may have missed out on selection for the tournament in Japan had he not pushed through the pain of another shoulder injury sustained in round two of the 2019 Vodacom Super Rugby tournament.
‘I was told that I probably wasn’t going to be ready for the World Cup. What was most important, however, is that I told myself to keep believing.
‘When things like that happen, you do start to think ahead about when you can resume training and how long it will take to regain your match fitness. I decided to put all that aside and focus on getting my body back into shape. Aled Walters [the Boks’ fitness guru] played a massive role in getting me ready ahead of the World Cup.’
De Jager played 40 minutes for the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup before he was selected for the Rugby Championship opener against Australia. If a World Cup place wasn’t at stake, however, he may not have pushed himself to play.
‘It was a struggle for me that particular week,’ De Jager revealed. ‘I tried to do 10 push-ups before the game against the Wallabies. It was simply too painful. But for me it was never a question of whether I was going to play. I knew there was no turning back.
‘It was difficult to watch RG Snyman, Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert performing week after week while I was injured. I wanted to be out there. I had been the starting No 5 before, but that jersey is never yours permanently. You know that it can be taken away in an instant and that, in the case of the lock position, South Africa has so many outstanding options.
‘We won that World Cup because of the internal competition within the squad,’ he said of the team’s performance in the ensuing months. ‘The way we all pushed each other over the course of that season was incredible. That spirit was apparent in the gym and on the training field. It was tough at times, but it did force us to become better individuals and a better side.’
De Jager started the 2019 season in the ‘B’ side as coach Rassie Erasmus split the squad in order to better manage South Africa’s resources. While he was left out of the match-day squad for the opening World Cup clash with New Zealand, he was back in the starting lineup in the playoffs.
De Jager dislocated his shoulder in the final against England and was forced to leave the field. Some felt that the injury marked a cruel end to the tournament for a player who’d fought so hard to regain his place. De Jager, who cherished every minute of game time in Japan, feels differently.
‘Some people feel sorry for me given how things turned out in the final. I don’t understand that,’ he said. ‘I gave absolutely everything I had for the Boks in the early stages of that game.
‘I held nothing back in that tackle where I was injured. I knew that I’d hurt my shoulder in that instant, but it wasn’t about me. It was about doing a job for the team.’
What happened after he left the field for treatment?
‘It felt like I was in the doctor’s room forever. They told me that the shoulder was dislocated and gave me some morphine. They took some x-rays to see if there was anything else that needed to be addressed.
‘I wanted to get back out there to see what was happening in the game, but something got lost in translation between the English and Japanese medical team and I only emerged in the second half. It took me awhile to actually realise what was happening. Then I saw Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe’s tries and I went mad.’
Later that evening, I bumped into De Jager at the team hotel in Tokyo Bay. He was celebrating with his teammates even though his arm was in a sling.
I asked him whether he was all right. At the time of the injury, he was evidently in a lot of pain and had to be helped from the field. When we caught up later, however, he told me that it was all worth it and clutched at his gold medal for emphasis.
Six months down the line, I ask De Jager whether he feels that the medal is a reward for his perseverance over a longer period of time.
‘I’d missed 18 months of rugby over the preceding two years due to injuries,’ he said. ‘I’d suffered another serious injury in the final. But that medal felt like a fantastic reward after all the hard work.
‘I wasn’t just playing for my team but for my country,’ De Jager added. ‘We knew that we could lift the mood in South Africa with success in Japan.
‘After we won the World Cup, we saw what an impact it had on the people when we took the trophy around the country. That is something I will never ever forget.’
Watch to the end pic.twitter.com/JXe4LcaJ4I
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) April 27, 2020
Photos: Getty Images