Lood de Jager hopes to reach great heights with the Cheetahs and Springboks this year, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The international media couldn’t speak highly enough of Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth after a string of superhuman performances at the 2015 World Cup.
‘Move over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there’s a new baby-faced assassin on the hunt in the form of Manchester United supporter Lood de Jager,’ wrote one Telegraph reporter in the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup semi-finals.
A New Zealand writer’s description of the Springbok second row was darker and more foreboding: ‘De Jager and Etzebeth: say the title quickly and it sounds like a firm of undertakers’.
Stephen Jones, the respected writer for the London Sunday Times, who is usually so frugal with his praise, suggested the rugby world was witnessing the rise of two giants: ‘De Jager  is a storm force. The idea that he and the giant Eben Etzebeth  could quite easily still be locking in the South African scrum together and moving mountains around the field at the World Cup of 2023 is almost too scary for words.’
A review of De Jager’s 2015 World Cup stats substantiates the hype. He made 100 tackles in seven matches, more than any other player at the tournament. He topped the overall list for lineout takes, and was joint-third in the rankings for lineout steals. The mobile tight forward clocked 296m with ball in hand, averaging an impressive six per carry. Indeed, it’s plain to see why he was named South Africa’s Player of the Year.
His competitive nature was evident on and off the field. Many reporters attempted to congratulate De Jager on his dominant performances over the course of the tournament. After the Boks lost to Japan, however, he responded to all well wishes with a glare and a gesture towards the scoreboard.
De Jager was one of South Africa’s star players on that heady day in Brighton. And yet, in the aftermath, he was just as inconsolable as the individuals who had cost the team the game.
‘This is a low point in my career,’ he said in a voice choked with emotion. ‘No, it doesn’t matter that I scored a try in my first World Cup match. All that matters is the team.’
Four months down the line De Jager still winces at the mention of the Boks’ World Cup losses to Japan and New Zealand. But now that some time has passed, he views the tournament in a different perspective.
‘The experience of playing at a World Cup will be invaluable,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘It’s something you can’t simulate. You can’t learn about dealing with the pressure by watching games on TV or from the stands. Nobody can tell you how to react in a World Cup playoff. You need to experience it all for yourself.
‘Calling the lineouts at the World Cup was a big responsibility. Victor Matfield, [Bok assistant coach] Johann van Graan and myself spent a lot of time together analysing the opposition. Victor was the best lock in the world for more than 10 years, so I was lucky to have that opportunity to learn from him. Hopefully I can take what I learned and serve South Africa in future. If I am selected for the 2019 World Cup, that experience will serve me well.
‘This season, I want to have a good Super Rugby tournament with the Cheetahs and then establish myself at No 5 at the Boks,’ the determined second rower says. ‘I know I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve come a long way under the guidance of Victor and Johann at the Boks, and now [former Free State and Italy lock] Corniel van Zyl at the Cheetahs.’
It’s hard to believe now, but De Jager was a relatively unknown player five years ago. As a schoolboy in the North West province, he was overlooked for Craven Week selection. As recently as 2011, he was playing for the Leopards U19 side. He wasn’t even on the Super Rugby radar.
‘We were travelling on the team bus to a match,’ De Jager recalls. ‘We had just watched South Africa beat Wales in that World Cup pool game in Wellington. We were pumped up, and we started to joke with each other. I said to one of my teammates: “Imagine if we could play at the World Cup in four years’ time?”’
De Jager went on to represent Pukke in the 2012 Varsity Cup. He made his Super Rugby debut for the Cheetahs in 2013. The Bok selectors started to take notice. On 14 June 2014, De Jager came off the bench to make his first Test appearance, against Wales.
‘I’ve followed his career since he joined the Cheetahs,’ says Van Graan. ‘I noticed that, while he was playing at No 4, the Cheetahs were using him quite a bit in the midfield as a ball-carrier. Clearly they were looking to make use of his size, in the sense that he has very long arms and can offload in the tackle. Even now, it’s one of his strongest attributes.
‘When he first came into camp with the Boks, I saw that he had a hunger to learn. More than that, he had the ability to apply what he had learned. We’d ask him to do something, like set up an attacking pattern from a set piece, and he’d give us that and so much more. It was clear then he had the potential to be a success. Then came his Test debut against Wales in 2014. It was the best 40 minutes of rugby I had seen from a No 4 lock in four or five years.’
Despite that performance, De Jager refused to believe he had arrived as a Test player. He continued to learn as much as he could, to use men like Matfield and Van Graan to further his rugby education.
At that point, De Jager wasn’t seen as a front-runner for the No 5 position. It was hoped that Pieter-Steph du Toit would return from a serious knee injury in 2015. Coach Heyneke Meyer intended to take Matfield and Du Toit to the 2015 World Cup as specialist No 5s. At best, De Jager would travel to the tournament as an understudy to Etzebeth, the Boks’ first-choice No 4.
The plan changed when Du Toit suffered yet another knee injury in early-2015. As a result, De Jager went into that season as the official cover for Matfield at No 5. When the veteran broke down with a hamstring ailment in the first Rugby Championship Test against Australia, De Jager needed to step up, as a player and as the leader of the lineout.
‘Lood took his chance,’ says Van Graan. ‘It was the first time he had run the lineout in a Test. No 5 is not an easy position to play. It’s not only about performing as an individual, but about identifying the strengths and weaknesses in the opposition lineout. You need to make the right call to ensure the team benefits. Lood started to get that right in that game and in the matches that followed. Importantly, he didn’t allow his determination to improve at the lineout to compromise the other areas of his game.’
In the previous issue of SA Rugby magazine, Du Toit said the South African second-row pair of Matfield and Bakkies Botha would never be bettered. However, he did add that the game is changing, and the role of the lock in the modern game is not as clear-cut as it once was. This much is evident when you see big men like De Jager, or even the All Blacks No 4 Brodie Retallick, in full flight.
‘In the past, each lock had a defined role,’ says De Jager. ‘Nowadays, both locks must be aggressive, have a high work rate and be able to call in the lineout. It helps the No 5 a great deal if his 4 understands what is happening at the lineout, especially if you are the team that is contesting. Maybe I’m unsighted at that exact moment, or maybe I miss something … it helps if Pieter-Steph or Eben spot it and relay the message. If you have versatile locks like that, it gives you so many more options.
‘Brodie Retallick is a great example of an all-round lock. He plays that enforcer role well for the All Blacks, but then you also see him calling the lineouts from the No 4 position for the Chiefs in Super Rugby. I think we need to make a mental shift and embrace that idea.
‘I want to be an all-round player,’ De Jager stresses. ‘I want to be strong at the breakdown, on attack, on defence and at the lineout. It’s not all about the lineout.’
Van Graan says the changes to the laws and to the pace of the game in recent times have necessitated an evolution with regard to second-row play.
‘The time for ball in play in Tests and Super Rugby has increased over the years,’ he says. ‘Recently, there have even been a few Tests where the ball was in play for 45 minutes. It demands a lot from your locks.
‘A No 5 is usually expected to play 80 minutes. His conditioning has to be right up there. He has to be up to it at scrum time, which is no mean feat with the new laws, and he has to be able to run the lineout.
‘Lood carries a lot of ball, and not just in the closer channels. He has an amazing ability to offload. His defence has improved, and he’s developed that special timing that we as coaches love to see. When he came off the bench in the World Cup match against Samoa, Lood made two massive hits within 20 seconds. They were so well timed that the crowd responded and the whole team started to buzz.
‘He’s improved in so many areas. It’s frightening to think about where he could be if he continues to grow in the lead-up to 2019.’
– This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine