Andries Pretorius was an electrical apprentice and handyman in South Africa before going on to play Test rugby for Wales. SIMON THOMAS reports.
For Andries Pretorius, it’s been an incredible journey from an orange farm in Groblersdal to the playing fields of Test rugby.
He calls it a fairytale and that’s a pretty accurate description of how the South African-born loose forward became a Welsh international. His tale takes some beating, with so many different factors, coincidences and twists of fate having come together, culminating in him making his Test debut for Wales against Japan in June 2013.
So, who better to tell the story than the man himself?
‘I was born in Nelspruit and lived there until I was 15,’ says Pretorius. ‘Then I worked on my uncle’s orange farm in Groblersdal. It was basically electronics work, so I could gain enough experience to get an apprenticeship as an electrician at the paper mill where my parents were working. I did 18 months of training at the paper mill, but somebody messed up the paperwork and they said I would have to redo the 18 months. I decided I couldn’t go through it again.
‘I had been playing rugby for a little club side at the time, so a friend down in Durban put me in touch with the Sharks Academy. I went for the trial and they said I showed a lot of potential but was still a bit raw, so I was sent down to play for Durban Collegians. One night the floodlights went out and I told the coach I could fix them. He said if I could, he’d employ me as their handyman and that would allow me to stay on in Durban.
‘While I was there, I stayed with an English guy. He was from Cheltenham and his dad happened to be the sponsor for Hartpury College’s 1st XV jersey, so he put me in contact with Allan Lewis.’
Enter a man who was to change Pretorius’s life – a former Llanelli, Newport and Wales coach, who was serving as director of rugby at the Gloucestershire college at the time.
‘I sent Allan an e-mail, just saying who I was and that I’d love an opportunity to speak to him,’ recalls Pretorius. ‘He then got in touch with me, saying he was coming down to look at the Sharks Academy system and asking if I would be about. I made sure I was and we sat down and had a chat. He came and watched us train one night and that’s all he saw of me.
‘Fortunately, he and the headmaster at Hartpury, Malcolm Wharton, had a discussion and said, “Let’s give him a chance.” They offered me a scholarship and I’ve never looked back. Without a shadow of a doubt, it changed my life.
‘I arrived at Hartpury on my 21st birthday. I didn’t have any work experience, or qualifications, so I knew it was do or die. I threw everything I had into it. I was the first person in my family to leave the country or go to university.’
The youngster grabbed his opportunity with such zeal that Lewis decided to recommend him to the Cardiff Blues, who handed him a contract in 2009.
Four years on, he is now a Welsh international, having made his mark for the Blues at blindside flank and No 8, completed his residency qualification and taken his Test bow in Osaka.
‘My dad was out in Namibia at the time, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, building a mine,’ says the 28-year-old.
‘He had to follow some updates at first and then managed to watch the game a bit later on. But both my sisters got up early in South Africa to watch the match live with their kids, because it was being televised there. It was the first time they’d seen me play on TV, so it was very special.
‘It has been a long road, but also an exciting one and it’s been special to have the opportunity [to play for Wales]. It is a fairytale. I am very fortunate.
‘Before the game in Japan, my dad sent me a message and he didn’t mention the rugby. He mentioned life, he mentioned the experience, he mentioned not to let myself or the family down. I remember when I first came over to the UK, he said, “If you are going to stay there and push on for your life, then you make sure you do everything you can and don’t take it for granted.”’
Pretorius says he has made sacrifices to get where he is.
‘When my mom passed away back home – two, three years ago now – I was in Cardiff. You come over, you miss birthdays, you miss Christmases, and therefore if you are going to take this massive step, make it count.’
– This article first appeared in the January-February issue of SA Rugby magazine
Note: Pretorius will join the Worcester Warriors next season