Serfontein must adapt or die

Jan Serfontein has transitioned from promising rookie to marked man, writes RYAN VREDE. How he negotiates this challenge will determine his future.

This season has been a particularly testing one for Bulls midfielder Jan Serfontein. Opponents have had two and a half years to work him out, injuries have hampered his progress, while the effects of playing without an adequate break since the start of his professional career have taken their toll.

He has, for the first time, faced consistent criticism, some of it deserved, some of it utterly ill-considered, the type of stuff the hype-mongers who would have sung his praises a couple of years ago specialise in.

Let’s not forget the calibre of the player in discussion. Serfontein was the World Rugby U20 Player of the Year in 2012, and played the first of his 20 Tests for the Springboks as a 20-year-old. He has shown himself to be more than competent at the game’s elite level. Serfontein is no ordinary kid. His struggles are in keeping with talents of his ilk. In a Springbok context, he is worth investing in for the long term and has undoubtedly earned our patience.

Does this mean we simply overlook those struggles? No. For a player blessed with his attacking skills – acceleration, speed, distribution, power in the tackle and offloading ability – one could reasonably expect him to be further along his development path than he is.

This is especially true when you consider he is 30-plus games into his Super Rugby career and has notable international experience. At the time of writing it was hard to make a counter-argument for him to start ahead of the impressive Burger Odendaal. Serfontein needs to navigate through this period of struggle fairly quickly.

‘It’s true that Jan is negotiating a challenging phase in his career but we, as the Bulls coaching staff, aren’t too concerned,’ says Bulls backline coach and former Springbok wing Pieter Rossouw, who has worked with Serfontein for all of his short professional career.

‘Jan is very aware of the areas he needs to improve in. Primarily we’re working on his decision-making under pressure. He needs to be making the right decisions – pass, run or kick – more consistently. Then there are subsections in those disciplines, like what angle of attack to take when he runs or who to pass to when he passes. These are split-second decisions and the best players make the right ones consistently. It’s something we commit time to in training but the more experience he gains, the better he will get in this regard.’

Rossouw points to Serfontein’s work ethic as a reason for him believing the player will overcome these challenges.

‘When he first arrived here out of school, the way he trained wasn’t at all how it is now. He has come to understand that to get to the top and stay there you have to train at a high intensity every session. He regularly stays on after sessions have finished to put in something extra, to work on specifics.  

‘You have to understand that he faces a new challenge as teams have had time to work him out tactically. They would have analysed his game and pinpointed his weaknesses. The challenge is for him to adapt, to grow. The best players, those with long careers at the top, are able to do this, and they do it because of their work ethic and their ability to see themselves as the opposition sees them.

‘The latter point is important because if you can see yourself the way the opposition sees you, you put yourself in a position to develop your game to a point where you can’t be as easily nullified. Jan has the potential to be a top player if he continues to work hard and smart.’ 

Aside from the technical demands on Serfontein, his mental constitution is also being tested. No problem, says Rossouw.

‘He is extremely strong mentally. In South Africa we don’t have a talent problem. Hundreds of talented kids come through every year. But not all of them have the mental strength to deal with the challenges that come at the top level. I’d like to think I know Jan pretty well at this point. His mental strength isn’t something I worry about.’

With the World Cup getting ever closer, Serfontein is in a battle with a clutch of highly competent challengers if he hopes to make the Springbok World Cup squad. Rossouw is emphatic that he should only be considered as an inside centre.

‘Jan can play outside centre but 12 is his best position by far,’ he says.

If Jean de Villiers recovers from his knee injury he will start, leaving Serfontein to slug it out with the Stormers’ Damian de Allende and potentially the Sharks’ Frans Steyn, should he resolve his dispute with Saru and reverse his decision to make himself unavailable for Bok selection. De Allende has consistently played better of late, while the latter is a proven Test player. Serfontein needs to remind coach Heyneke Meyer, a believer, of what he can offer in the coming months.  

‘As a player you are fully aware of those challenging for your position and Jan is no different,’ says Rossouw.

‘I experienced it throughout my career and the way I dealt with it was to narrow my focus to include only the things I could control. Jan needs to do the same thing. He can’t concern himself with Damian or whether Frans and Jean will return.

‘He needs to show that he can learn quickly and consistently implement that knowledge in a match situation to the benefit of his team. There’s nothing else he needs to do. He’s one of the most talented kids I’ve seen come through in the past decade. There is no talent issue. He must show that talent consistently.

‘He may very well miss out on World Cup selection this time. He may not. Only Heyneke can make that call. But if he does miss out it shouldn’t be seen as him being an unfulfilled talent. He may not improve sufficiently quickly to be the man Heyneke needs now. But he can be the future.’

– This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine


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Ryan Vrede