Bulls discard Rohan Janse van Rensburg has made a name for himself at the Lions this season, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG.
It was somewhat appropriate that Rohan Janse van Rensburg chose to meet for breakfast at a hamburger joint on the eastern side of Johannesburg. Big and hulking with tree-trunk thighs that Ray Mordt or Ma’a Nonu would be proud of, Van Rensburg looks like he hasn’t eaten a vegetable in his life. He’s what New Zealanders like to call a ‘big unit’.
It was a rare off-weekend for the midfielder and he was smarting from having earlier discovered that his puppy, a Malamute, had chewed up R500 from his wallet.
No matter. Life is a thrill for the 21-year-old, who is basking in the public consciousness after a Super Rugby season in which he established himself as an intimidating operator with sharp instincts.
Despite coming from Blue Bulls country, he’s no mere crash-baller. He has a formidable box of tricks and there’s a radioactive quality to his play. He’s every inch the coming man, one of the many gems the Lions have developed in recent seasons.
Every elite-level player has a game that makes people sit up and take notice. Van Rensburg’s came in late May when the Lions travelled to Loftus Versfeld seeking a first win there in Super Rugby. Motivated by personal history, and more than a little hurt,
Van Rensburg was part-wrecking ball, part-swordsman. The Bulls were destroyed 56-20, with the player deemed surplus to their requirements inflicting much of the pain.
He’s not the sort of player to gloat – his deep religious conviction sees to that – but he admits to feeling a surge of satisfaction.
It’s not hard to see why.
He grew up in Pretoria and was a standout player at Hoërskool Waterkloof, before seamlessly moving into the Bulls’ vibrant junior system. He won two junior provincial titles (U19 and U21) and looked set for an extended stay in Pretoria. And then he was called to a meeting.
‘We like you, but you aren’t in our plans,’ he was told. The Kriel brothers, Jan Serfontein and Burger Odendaal were rated higher. It felt like a punch in the gut for the man who had invested heavily in his ambitions in the city he called home.
The Lions were the first team to send him a contract. After the Bulls hurt, it was an easy decision to head down the N1 freeway.
It wasn’t a dream start in the red and white, however. Van Rensburg was carrying a nasty groin injury, plus he was overweight and filled with self-doubt. It got worse. He tore his ankle ligaments after a heavy tackle from the Bulls’ Hanro Liebenberg in a Vodacom Cup game.
He called his mother, telling her he wanted to quit. Maybe rugby wasn’t for him.
Then he turned to his faith.
Van Rensburg opened his Bible and sought his answers there. He got his answer and fought on, ticking off his goals one by one.
The first, written down and pasted up, was to play senior Currie Cup rugby in the Lions No 12 jersey. The second was to win a senior Currie Cup. The third is to go on the end-of-year Springbok tour, whether he gets to play or not.
The first two have been emphatically ticked. The third, if there is any justice in the rugby world, ought to be achieved in the coming months.
Van Rensburg has thrived amid an atmosphere and culture that couldn’t be more different from Pretoria. The Lions are in the midst of a golden era in which they have utterly transformed the tapestry and flavour of South African rugby. Convention has been kicked in the teeth in favour of flair and dynamism. Players are constantly asked to contribute and offer ideas.
‘All I say is, “Boys, it’s just awesome to be here”. They all laugh at me,’ quips the youngster.
He attributes his emergence to the shrewd coaching offered by Johan Ackermann, Swys de Bruin and junior coach Herkie Kruger, the contributions of Dr Jannie Putter, a psychologist who counsels the team every Tuesday, and conditioning coach Ivor ‘Cash’ van Rooyen. He’s now a lean 108kg, injury-free and in the form of his life. De Bruin is the man who flicked his switch.
‘He lets us play. He doesn’t mind an offload, or a chip-kick, even if it doesn’t work out. I had never chip-kicked in my life. I did it against the Bulls and it came off.’
Despite his bulk, Van Rensburg can shift. He competed at the SA Junior Athletics Championships, running the 110m hurdles, and often contemplates what playing wing might be like. He played outside centre until his final school year, and then switched to 12. He enjoys the creative demands of the job and putting teammates away, but sometimes shifts to 13 when Howard Mnisi comes on.
He is humbled by the positive talk swirling about. People give him the thumbs-up in traffic, others drop messages on Facebook about how he has boosted them. He, in turn, makes the point that he is thriving in a team context. It’s not all about him.
‘The guys I play with are abnormally good. We learn from each other and there’s no issue with a 21-year-old suggesting something to a 26-year-old like Elton Jantjies. We feel that all this success is the start of something, not the end.
‘Swys has given us our freedom. Faf [de Klerk] and Elton are the guys who get us fired up. We need quick ball and Faf provides it. I look around the team and I see so many ex-Bulls guys doing well … I get the irony.’
He says the chemistry between Ackermann and De Bruin is extraordinary. They feed off one another and ego isn’t a part of their relationship. Sometimes Ackermann will take to reading
a negative newspaper report to the team to fire them up. Otherwise, it’s all feet-on-the-ground sort of stuff. No panic, no fuss.
Van Rensburg loved the impact Jaque Fourie had on the game. Role models don’t get much better. As for opposition, Malakai Fekitoa gets his vote as a tricky customer, although he’s down on himself for showing the Kiwi too much respect earlier this year.
Van Rensburg himself is an uncomplicated guy. He plays golf (12-handicap) every Wednesday with teammates De Klerk, Franco Mostert, Andries Coetzee and Ross Cronjé. When he’s at home he’s a hardcore gamer – Fifa 16 being a particular favourite – although that’s likely to be overtaken by the demands of soon moving into his brand-new home in Boksburg. Appropriately, it sits alongside a golf course. On Sundays, he attends church.
For the rest of it, he’s every inch a modern rugby man, having the time of his life.
– This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine