Rohan Janse van Rensburg on overcoming off-field challenges, redefining his game in the Premiership and his Springbok ambitions.
CRAIG LEWIS: How has your career and life changed since joining the Sale Sharks?
ROHAN JANSE VAN RENSBURG: Moving to England was obviously a big decision. To be honest, I was at an immature stage in my life. It was definitely an emotional decision and not a calculated one. In the beginning, moving over was quite tough: adjusting to the weather and the people. It wasn’t always just sunshine and rainbows. It was a tough decision to make and after moving over here, as much as the club helped me and tried to make it as comfortable as possible, I found it quite challenging to settle in. In the first season I was a bit rusty after moving to Sale but in the second season, things started to pick up for me not just on the rugby field but also personally. I got married and my wife changed my life. Certain things that I didn’t have in place, she sorted out, and I started realising that I wanted to try to make the best of the decision to move, and since then I’ve never looked back. It’s been great so far, and I’m very humbled and thankful for that.
You lost your mother to cancer in 2017 and were the victim of a frightening armed robbery later that year. How did those experiences factor into your mindset?
A lot. Like I said, moving abroad was an emotional decision and all those things that happened were quite emotional. Then, when I was given the opportunity to come overseas, I looked at it as a good decision for me and my potential family to have a safer life, being more content in your own home. I’m sure there are a lot of people going through rough times, where the same things have happened to them in South Africa, and they wish they could have the opportunity I’ve been given. So that was definitely one of the major factors, just to clear my head and get myself into a good space again. And after all the things that happened here so far, it’s been good for me. I’m thankful for that.
You’ve mentioned that you found yourself in a dark space after the robbery. What helped get you out of that?
I think every person gets to a stage where you think, enough is enough! You can hold on to bad experiences … or use them as a shield or excuse for why things are going the way they are. That was the case for me with everything that happened, and then obviously over here I also went through that court case with Gloucester and Sale [Janse van Rensburg was fined and briefly suspended for signing playing contracts with two Premiership clubs]. That was a very tough time for me. Firstly, I’ve never been in such an environment where there’s outside noise involved and stuff like that. Sale did everything they could to make the experience as smooth as possible but at the end of the day, I knew I’d made a mistake and it was on me. But getting over that and moving forward was the most important thing for me. Yes, the money was a lot, paying the fines and everything; it was quite hectic. But knowing you’ve got a clear conscience and you can actually start moving forward was the big factor for me, and that was what changed everything. I could finally focus and enjoy what’s ahead in my life and career. That was the great turning point for me. And the support structure of my wife and my family helped me go through that a bit more smoothly than if I’d done it on my own.
You seem to be saying it was your mistake. Why is that?
How can I put this? Sometimes, the way you see, feel or hear things may not be the way another person interpreted them, and you can’t always go on your gut feeling on what you feel was said. I think that’s the most important thing – to get things put on paper before you go ahead and do something. Don’t just jump into something else without getting everything written down. I think it was just a miscommunication. Luckily, throughout this whole process, Gloucester and I didn’t part ways on a bad note. With regard to coach Johan Ackermann, who was at Gloucester, I’m still talking to him, and I still see him as a big role model in my life. I think he’ll always be, because I started my rugby with him when I was younger, so I never had any bad vibes or bad energy towards him in my life. I’m just happy that everything got resolved in good faith; that’s all that matters to me.
How have you matured as a person and player over the past couple of seasons?
After that first season and going through all of those external things, I quickly realised that the Premiership is no joke [laughs]. Here, it’s like Test rugby every single game and every game is a must-win. All the teams are almost on the same level player-wise and there are world-class players in every team. I started realising that if you want to keep up with this competition, you’re going have to step up fitness-wise. This was a massive factor, defensively, for me, and in our team I stepped up quite a lot in terms of the structure of our defence and how we want it to run. I’m part of the defensive group for that too. So there were things I had to work on when it came to my work rate on the field, working off the ball and on defence. At times, I’d admit I was a bit lazy or too laid-back when it came to those elements of my game in the past; and I thought things were just going to happen for me. That’s the worst mindset to have. But I’ve changed that and I know that’s going to help me in the long run and in my career. Sale benefited me with regard to knowing the worth and the value of the player I am, and that I can contribute to the team. Believing that you can make a difference is the most important factor when going on the field. It’s about having the confidence to go out there and be the difference you want to see.
You seem to have trimmed down a bit. Was it intentional, so you could become more mobile?
Yeah, in terms of physical shape-wise, I still don’t think I’m where I want to be. But I don’t want to lose my power and obviously my speed in the same breath, so I’m looking to try to slim down as much as I can. Since joining Sale, I’ve already lost 15 or 16kgs. I’m trying to get down and still maintain the power, which is what I’m comfortable doing on the field. Slimming down a bit was intentional for me mentally, to get me into a space knowing I could obviously work a bit harder. It’s just good having more discipline off the field because then I’ll have it on the field in my work rate. Obviously if I want to aspire to play on the international stage again one day, so I don’t want to feel I’m not ready for it. Getting myself into the best shape possible can hopefully just contribute to me feeling more comfortable in that situation.
Speaking of that, what’s key to putting yourself in a position to add to your 2016 Test cap?
I’d love to get that opportunity and to showcase what I’m made of. Part of my goals and ambitions is to get back into the Springbok fold, and I think it would be a massive honour to work with Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and the other coaches. When I earned my first Test cap I was a youngster, and I’d only played one full Super Rugby season, but after playing in the Premiership, you gain more experience in different situations. At the moment, though, I’m just focusing on trying to play good rugby and to stay consistent in my game. It would be a great learning experience to be back with the Boks, especially after everything they’ve achieved over the past couple of years.
*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!