Van Wyk loving life in New Zealand

In the latest SA Rugby magazine, Kobus van Wyk talks about his unexpected move to the Hurricanes, a memorable debut and coping during lockdown in New Zealand.

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How did your move from the Sharks to the Hurricanes come about?
My contract with the Sharks was coming to an end and they didn’t offer me a new deal. After we were bounced out of the Currie Cup last year, my agent phoned me and said that John Plumtree was interested in bringing me to the Hurricanes. I immediately said I was keen. It’s a massive move. I haven’t heard of any South African players going to New Zealand, given the talent they have in the country. For them to show interest in me felt unreal. I’m one of a privileged few from afar who gets to play for a New Zealand side.

How have you coped without your family and friends in South Africa?
Our coping mechanism has been for my wife, Juné, and I to stick together with our son Elijah. The first two weeks were not easy, but we’ve made a lot of friends and going to church helped immensely. People willingly extend a hand to look after Elijah for a night so we can have a date night for ourselves. And we instantly had that trust to leave him with them. We’ve been blessed abundantly with many good people coming into our lives.

What are the key differences between being a Sharks and a Canes player?
The freedom they give you over here is probably the biggest difference for me. They are bit more chilled this side; rugby is not life so they’re not focused on winning every week. Obviously winning is what we’re all after but they look after each other. The Hurricanes as an organisation are family-oriented and it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced before. For example [before lockdown], everyone would attend Monday morning meetings, including the admin staff, because we were all away for the weekend, so these meetings are about making sure everyone had a lekker break and made it back to work safely. Only after that will we split for team meetings. These days everything gets done over Zoom, though. On Thursdays all the boys used to head out for coffee to catch up and to find out what is going on in each other’s lives, just chat about normal life. It wasn’t as easy with Covid-19, but we’re making plans for when all this is over. For now, we’ve have to settle for group chats and video calls.

With four tries in three games, you had a dream start to your Hurricanes career. Talk us through your debut when you scored a hat-trick.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. That week of my debut was an absolute nightmare. I rolled my ankle on the Thursday and it was so bad I was put in a moonboot. I was named in the squad but I just felt I wasn’t going play, I told my wife there’s no way I’m going to play; heck I couldn’t even walk on the thing. My wife and I prayed for a miracle and somehow I passed a late fitness test. I still don’t know how because the belief in myself wasn’t there. We played the Sunwolves in Napier and when we got there and went for the captain’s run, the pain in my ankle flared up and had to strapped up again. But Wes Goosen was rested and I started, and the rest, as they say, is history.

*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.

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What do you hope to get out of your spell with the Hurricanes?
I joined on a one-year deal, but we are talking about the possibility of extending my stay here for another season or two. I’m enjoying my rugby because I have a lot of freedom. As someone who has played 50-odd Super Rugby games, I’d like to give back to the younger guys at home and this experience will lend credence to my role as a mentor in future. I want to give back and share what I learn here.

Do you believe you can hold down a permanent spot in the match 23?
Every team member’s dream is to play, get as much game time under the belt as possible. And it’s even more so when you play in New Zealand. I just want to makea mark. I hadn’t played a lot in South Africa over the past season or two, so I just needed to confirm that belief in myself again. I know I’m good enough but I need to build on the momentum of my first few games for the Hurricanes to get my confidence and self-belief up. I know I’m good enough to make that No 14 jersey my own.

There are several All Blacks in the Hurricanes team. What’s it like to share a change room with them?
They are all good characters and so far it’s only been a good time for me. It’s about learning from them and learning what makes them tick and excel in everything they do, even outside rugby. They focus a lot on family life and bonding with the guys away from the pressures of rugby. We go to a cell group and it’s equally awesome and weird to just hang out, laugh and experience life with them without the ball.

How would you summarise your journey from when you started out at Western Province?
I wouldn’t say it’s a miracle, but it’s definitely a journey against the odds. If you’re born a South African, you admire the New Zealanders’ flair and skills, but you don’t dream of playing for one of their Super Rugby franchises. But to be here now and to play for the Hurricanes and wear the jersey is an honour. Everything that came before has helped prepare me for this opportunity.

Considering that journey, what is your outlook on life?
In life, we are placed in a lot of different situations to test our resolve. It’s like the situation the world has found itself in with Covid-19. Rugby is the same. You get ups and downs, times when you’re feeling bad and times you’re on a high. In the end, it’s about going back to your roots and knowing what you stand for. When things don’t go your way, you must fall back on what you know and go to the people who know and care about you and can point you in the right direction. As long as we know who we are and where we come from, we’ll all be OK.

What was the key to your successful transition from the Sharks to the Canes?
Probably the work done between my agent and John Plumtree. They have a good relationship. After the Currie Cup, Plumtree came over to South Africa for an official sitdown meeting with my wife and I, when he told us a little bit about New Zealand, the culture and spoke about the Hurricanes’ team ethic. He was the leading figure in the process of us integrating so successfully.

What are your best attributes and your work-ons as a player? 
Running with the ball in hands is my strength. As an outside back, it’s in my nature to want to create magic and show off with fancy skills and tricks. Work-ons are the times when the ball is not coming my way; I have to learn to trace the ball and to work more off my wing to create space, width and maybe an overlap on the other side just by fixing a defender. Off-the-ball plays like that make a huge difference, even if it may seem insignificant.

What drives you as a player and a person?
My love of the game. I’ve dreamed of playing for the Springboks since I was a little kid but also just playing in front of big crowds around South Africa. I didn’t become a Springbok but I was lucky enough to play inside a packed Newlands several times, and those are the experiences and moments I wouldn’t trade for anything.

What are the culture shocks you’ve experienced in Wellington?
They’ve got a lot of players with Fijian, Samoan and Maori heritage, so for me and my family every minute of being here is a learning curve on how to interact with people from different cultures. We learn from them too, especially since we come from a more conservative background. Everything is so chilled and the players are not precious at all. They have a wicked sense of humour and it’s refreshing to be a part of that.

Who are you closest to within this team?
There are a couple of South Africa-born players here like Wes Goosen and Ricky Riccitelli, so I’ve got that connection with them. We throw around some Afrikaans and it’s good. Goose is from East London and Ricky is from Durban. But as I said, everyone has been welcoming. You know you are accepted and considered one of the boys when they chirp away and sledge you; that makes me feel like I belong. I’ve been to a few barbeques, but Ricky, Goose and I call them ‘braais’. Ardie Savea and I are also close, we are in the cell group together, go to the same church and attend events together.

What made you decide to stay in New Zealand during the coronavirus pandemic?
It would have been a massive travel schedule back home with the little one. Travelling would have also caused a greater risk of us getting exposed to the virus and we felt it was the safer option to stay in Wellington.

Which Sharks teammates are you still in contact with?
The Sharks were here in mid-February and I organised a golf day for us on the Sunday. I’m mates with Andre Esterhuizen, Curwin Bosch, Cameron Wright, Louis Schreuder and Lukhanyo Am, and it’s good to keep in touch with them. I was there for three years and they were a big part of my life. I miss them.

What do you miss most about South Africa?
Biltong, droewors, brandewyn. But I miss our family the most, especially with the little man growing up now. That’s the toughest. What I love most here is the people and their generosity.

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Mariette Adams