After losing his mother to cancer, Rohan Janse van Rensburg is more motivated than ever to perform, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
With a finger raised heavenwards, Rohan Janse van Rensburg celebrated his second try against the Waratahs, while planting a kiss on the strapping around his wrist, where the name Renthia had been lovingly written in memory and honour of his beloved mother.
Just days before the Lions’ second-round Super Rugby match at the beginning of March, she had lost her battle with cancer.
It was a loss that left Janse van Rensburg and his family grief-stricken.
At that stage, it would have been understandable had he withdrawn from the Lions squad on the eve of their clash against the Waratahs. However, the talented centre knew this was not something his mother would have wanted.
‘It was obviously so overwhelming when my mom passed away, and I almost didn’t know how to react,’ he told SA Rugby magazine a few days after his mother’s funeral, which saw over 300 people come to pay their respects. ‘Ultimately, I had two choices. One was to lie down, mourn my mom and skip the game; or I could honour her and celebrate her life by giving my all out on the field.
‘She had always said that whatever happened to her, I should keep on doing what I love because she believes in me and that I can become the best. So, in the end, I knew what the correct decision was.’
Although Janse van Rensburg says he knew his mother would have been happy to see him run out against the Waratahs, he concedes there were some challenging moments in the lead-up to the game.
‘The whole week was emotional, and I was trying to hide my emotion from the team, because I didn’t want them to see that I was hurting. That week we had training at Joburg Stadium, but our captain’s run was at Ellis Park, and there’s a two-minute drive between the two stadiums. I’d hidden my emotions quite well up to then, but on that short drive I cried my eyes out. I went and parked in the corner of Ellis Park and just had an outpouring of emotion before going out on to the field. Thankfully, coach Ackies [Johan Ackermann] helped me through a lot of that, and provided advice about how to contain those emotions and then channel it into motivation for the match.’
In the end, that motivation translated into a performance that his mother would have been immensely proud of, with the well-built centre delivering a typically physical display with ball in hand, while finishing off two important tries. In the context of the clash, it was his second try that knocked the fight out of the visitors and illustrated the strengths that ensured Janse van Rensburg ended last year with the Bok No 12 jersey on his back.
Receiving the ball in his own half, the 22-year-old burst through two attempted tackles and then spun a well-timed pass to Jaco Kriel, before running a superb supporting line to recollect the ball and then display a good turn of pace to go over and score. He admits it was a moment that won’t be quickly forgotten, but for more reasons than one.
‘The tries were special; it almost felt like there was something spiritual about them. For the first one, Elton [Jantjies] passed me the ball and there was just no one in front of me. I thought, “Well, this hasn’t happened before.” And then, before the second try, it honestly felt like my mom was standing right next to me and guiding me. So obviously that was very emotional. I just said, “This is for you, Mom”.’
After the emotion of that week, Janse van Rensburg was afforded some time off to recover from a slight injury niggle, but primarily to spend time with his family and pay his final respects to his mother as she was laid to rest. It also provided him with the opportunity to take stock after a whirlwind start to the season, which had its challenges on and off the field.
In the opening game of the campaign, Janse van Rensburg started at inside centre, but was also deployed out wide on the wing at times. In a demonstration of his versatility, the specialist centre never looked out of place, while scoring two crucial tries, including the match-winner late in the game. Poignantly, that match-winning act would be the last piece of play that Renthia would see from her son.
Off the field, Janse van Rensburg spent as much time as possible with his mother, before honouring her with a passionate performance against the Waratahs just days after she passed away. When SA Rugby magazine caught up with Janse van Rensburg a couple of weeks after that emotionally-charged match, he spoke with a renewed sense of purpose.
‘I’m actually holding up OK, thanks, bru,’ he said in typically down-to-earth fashion. ‘There are difficult times, of course. Like the first time I saw her name come up on my phone and it hit home that I can’t speak to her anymore … and then for that game against the Waratahs, it was an unusual sort of motivation.
‘But the death of my mom has really given me so much more motivation to not only play for her, but also for my dad [Johan], who is going through a difficult time after losing his best friend. It’s not about me any more; I’m obviously serving the Lions, but also playing for my family. The week off after the Waratahs game also made me so much hungrier, and now I just have so much motivation to make the most of every opportunity I get.’
As if to illustrate the point, Janse van Rensburg went on to produce another powerful performance when he returned to action against the Reds, with the centre creating and scoring a try, while remaining omnipresent on attack and defence. Notably, although Janse van Rensburg has become renowned for his dominant ball-carrying ability that has left numerous would-be defenders trailing in his wake, his renewed ambitions for 2017 have seen him continuing to evolve as an all-round player.
‘I worked very hard on my defence in the off-season, and it’s something I want to keep focusing on,’ he explains. ‘I want to be a coachable player, and I think it’s important to take myself out of my comfort zone as much as possible.
‘The game is constantly changing, and I want to keep pace with that. I’ve also been working on my conditioning to try to ensure I can maintain my form for the entire season.’
It’s this desire to continue setting the bar higher that has seen Janse van Rensburg overcome adversity and emerge as one of the standout performers in the early rounds of Super Rugby. And while his personal circumstances and professional motivations might have been realigned, his priorities have not.
‘My first goal is just to serve the Lions as best I can. I want to give my best every day. And then from a national perspective, you can never take it for granted that you’ll be in the [Springbok] squad, so I have to keep working harder than ever. I’d love to start every Test this year, and that’s my goal, but I know it’s not just going to happen. I have to expand my game and add elements to what I’ve been doing if I want to be able to achieve that.
‘Most of all, though, I want to play to make my family, and my mom, proud.’
JANSE VAN RENSBURG ON …
COPING WITH HIS MOTHER’S DEATH
‘We have a real family environment at the Lions, and before my mom passed, coach Ackies [Johan Ackermann] and I were chatting about how important it is to have that support system of your family. The night before [his mother passed away], I actually had quite a spiritual experience and phoned my girlfriend to say I didn’t have a good feeling about my mom. It felt like it was a sign from above that it was coming, and then in the middle of the night I woke up with this very abnormal cough. It was around that time that I got the news that my mom had passed on, but when I woke up with that strange feeling, I already knew.’
WHAT HE LEARNED FROM HIS MOTHER
‘My mom was a woman full of wisdom. She always spoke the truth, and you always knew where you stood. She taught me the smaller things in life about honouring people, expressing gratitude to those around you, remaining humble, and to never belittle others. The biggest lesson she taught me when I was growing up was about the way to treat people, regardless of whether you are getting something from them in return.’
PAYING HIS FINAL RESPECTS
‘After the Waratahs game, it was good to spend time with my family. We prepared that funeral for around 100 people, but the attendance was over 300. When my mom was diagnosed, they only gave her two years to live, but she went on to live for eight. It was wonderful to share how special my mom was and how bravely she fought. It warms my heart to know that the last words we said to each other were “I love you”.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine