JD Schickerling is on the Springbok radar again after fighting his way back from a frightening neck injury, writes DYLAN JACK in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
If Schickerling makes his Springbok debut next year, it will mark the apex of a journey which has taken him to hell and back.
The 25-year-old has had the attention of the national coaches for some time, but has seen his Test debut delayed by a combination of ill-timed injuries, a loss of form, South Africa’s outstanding depth at lock and perhaps even as a result of an absence of Springbok rugby in 2020 due to Covid-19.
However, with Lood de Jager recovering from a third successive shoulder injury and RG Snyman having torn his anterior cruciate ligament, the Springbok door may now be open for him.
The Stormers player would find it easy to sympathise with the two World Cup winners, as he has been through his own battle with a long-term injury, which not only could have ended his career as a player, but also changed his life forever.
Rewinding to August 2014, a then 19-year-old Schickerling was playing for the Western Province U21 team against the Blue Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.
Only minutes into the match, he went up in the air to collect a kick-off, but after coming straight down to ground, he tucked his head in. As he did so, he was met by the Bulls’ second-row combination, who put him in a head lock and pulled him to ground, causing two vertebrae in his neck to break.
After being rushed to hospital, Schickerling was told he would need an emergency operation. While the good news was that he would be able to walk, the doctor added that he had come 2mm from paralysis.
‘At first I did not realise it was my neck I had injured but as soon as they rushed me to the hospital and sent me for scans the doctor told me how severe the injury was,’ Schickerling tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I did not process the news well because rugby was the only thing I knew and what I wanted to do. Mentally it was tough.’
While Schickerling was advised not to play rugby again, he was given the option of a second operation to insert a plate in his neck which would allow him to continue his sporting career. He did not hesitate in agreeing to it.
What followed was a 16-month recovery period, during which Schickerling essentially had to start from scratch.
‘The recovery process wasn’t easy. It took me a year to get back on the rugby field,’ he says. ‘Luckily I had great people at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport helping me with my recovery and getting me back where I needed to be. Especially SAS head of performance Johan van Wyk, who helped me a lot with rehab and mentally getting back.’
Stormers coach John Dobson, who in 2014 was coaching the Western Province U21 side, said Schickerling was determined to get back on to the field.
‘If I’d had that injury, I would never have even thought about going back to play rugby again,’ Dobson tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘Not in his position and not the way rugby is these days. That felt quite scary in many ways, but I say that respectfully.
‘He was absolutely determined to get back on to the field. I thought, jeepers, if I had come that close to paralysis or death, as those kinds of injuries can be, I would not be playing rugby again.
‘We went to see him and his family in Villiersdorp during his recovery. From the start, there was just no doubt in his mind that he was going to get back on the field.
‘What is, to my mind, the biggest thing, is that if you run on to the field, knowing you have a problem with your neck, surely you must be petrified. It is something I talked to him this year about. He said when he runs on the field, he just doesn’t think about it. That’s a special skill set. It is remarkable.’
In late 2015, Schickerling started training again with the Western Province U21 side and made his official comeback against the Lions U21s on 2 October as a substitute. He would go on to make his Super Rugby debut against the Bulls in February 2016, again coming off the bench at Newlands.
‘I wasn’t nervous for my first match because I knew I had to go full out or leave it,’ Schickerling says. ‘It was a very special and exciting moment for me when I made my debut for the Stormers. I wasn’t worried about confidence for the contact at senior level, because it is such an honour every time you play for the Stormers.
‘In my first game against the Bulls, I got high tackled, but I stood up and I knew my neck was fine.’
Since then, Schickerling has served his apprenticeship under now France-based Springboks Eben Etzebeth and Rynhardt Elstadt and has picked up the reins as the Stormers’ lineout commander.
His performances in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup in 2017 and 2018 earned him the attention of the Springbok coaching staff. After missing out on a place in the squad for the June 2018 incoming tour due to injury, he would earn a call-up to the squad for the November tour to Europe.
‘It was massive for me just to be in the squad. It was a big privilege and honour, and I learned so much and enjoyed it even more. My family and my wife were so proud of and happy for me.’
However, Schickerling subsequently saw his career stall in 2019. A combination of injuries, a loss of form and the wealth of locks Rassie Erasmus had available meant he missed out on a place in the Springbok squads that won the Rugby Championship and World Cup.
‘JD, by his own admission, would agree that at the start of Super Rugby this year he stalled a bit,’ Dobson says. ‘We have spoken about that. He was battling with a few injuries but it had nothing to do with his neck.
‘The South African lock depth is incredible, but JD in his heart of hearts would agree that he didn’t really kick the door down in 2019. He had the injuries. At the start of this year, I don’t think he was at his best. During the Currie Cup last year, he also wasn’t at his best. He has had problems with his shoulder and that’s obviously devastating from a lineout, scrum and pretty much every point of view. He wouldn’t put the blame anywhere else.’
Good news for Schickerling is that he has not completely fallen off the Springbok radar, especially after the injuries to De Jager and Snyman, which has forced new Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber to look at his options before next year’s British & Irish Lions series.
Schickerling was involved in the recent Springbok Showdown, which looked set to serve as an old-school trial match for the coaches to test the country’s depth before the Springboks pulled out of the Rugby Championship.
With that decision having been made, Schickerling can focus on producing his best performances for the Stormers in Super Rugby Unlocked and the Currie Cup.
‘I think he is back to where he was when he was selected for the 2018 Springbok tour, which is really exciting,’ Dobson says.
‘There are a couple of factors, one of which is local locks. We don’t know what the international season is going to look like. Also, you want as many Springboks playing in South Africa as possible and JD could be one of those.
‘We spoke earlier this year, before lockdown, and the word we used was that he had stalled. This is his critical year to pick up his trajectory again, to become a top-class, international No 5 lock, which I have absolutely no doubt he is going to be. This year is critical for all sorts of reasons.
‘It is a massive opportunity for him,’ Dobson adds.’What’s great is that he seems to be taking it.’