Fit-again centre Jan Serfontein is hoping for a change of luck in the buildup to the 2019 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Jan Serfontein watched the Springboks’ monumental win in New Zealand from his home in Montpellier. A year had passed since the Boks, with Serfontein in tow, went down 57-0 to the All Blacks in Albany. A year had passed since the centre – who was the Boks’ first-choice No 12 in 2017 – last played for South Africa. Rassie Erasmus visited Montpellier at the start of the year to speak to Serfontein and several other South African players about his plans for the season and the 2019 World Cup. When the Bok coach returned, it was reported that Serfontein would not be considered for the Test series against England, and subsequently the Rugby Championship, due to a ‘rare outgrowth on his thigh’.
Erasmus declined to provide further details when he was quizzed about the nature and severity of the condition. He said his medical team would remain in touch with Montpellier and monitor Serfontein’s progress closely. As a result, the media and public were left to speculate as to when, and even if, Serfontein would be back.
The 25-year-old drops a bombshell when he provides a more specific and frightening description: a tumour on the femur.
‘I’m glad I’ve put that all behind me,’ he tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I was fortunate that the tumour was benign, but it was a very rare condition that took the doctors a long time to diagnose. In the interim, I was in a lot of pain.
‘When Rassie came to Montpellier, I told him about my condition and we agreed that I needed to get it sorted out before we could talk about me playing for the Boks. You have to understand, it was the kind of thing that was affecting every aspect of my life, not only rugby. Rassie said he understood that I needed some time to recover.’
Serfontein returned to South Africa in early June to have surgery. The femur was particularly susceptible to a break in the period after the operation, so Serfontein was forced to bide his time before rejoining his Montpellier teammates in training. Eventually, he started running again. In late September, he played his first game in four months.
‘There’s nothing I could have done to prevent that condition,’ he says. ‘It was a freakish incident. After the surgery, the pain was gone. It was a huge relief. Every precaution was taken thereafter.
‘I rested up and then got stuck into my rehab. I got as fit as I could before making my comeback. Injuries are the worst thing about rugby,’ he adds.
Serfontein spent lengthy spells on the sidelines in 2015 and 2016. He enjoyed an extended starting opportunity in the three-Test series against France last year and garnered praise for his attacking and defensive contributions. At the time, he told this magazine he intended to savour every opportunity with the Boks as if it was his last.
‘I hate being on the sidelines. The recent problem was something beyond an injury, though. I’m glad to be back in the game now, and my only focus for the remainder of the year is to do the best I can. I have to look after my body and prevent any further setbacks. I want to play week in and week out and build up some momentum.’
Serfontein delivered one of his most influential performances for the Boks when they hosted the All Blacks in Cape Town last year. He did not have the opportunity to build on that performance, however, as an agreement with Montpellier meant he was unavailable for the Boks’ matches against Ireland, France, Italy and Wales.
‘The decision to move to France was made well before I knew I would be involved with the Boks [in 2017],’ he says. ‘It seemed like a good decision at the time. It didn’t look like I was in the Bok coach’s plans and I felt that a stint in Europe could benefit my career in the long run. It was always my plan to return to South Africa afterwards, though. That experience with my leg aside, it’s been an interesting adjustment for my wife and I in France. Life in Montpellier is a world apart from the life we were used to back in South Africa. The culture, the language and even the rugby is very different.
‘It’s been great to come over here and experience something new. French is a tough language, and I’ve been lucky that our team has an international flavour and a lot of the coaches also speak English. You do pick up a lot, though, especially with regard to rugby-related French phrases that can help you in a game. I’ve been lucky to play alongside guys like Frans Steyn and Aaron Cruden, senior players who have won World Cups for their countries. One is only going to benefit from an experience like that.’
One would like to believe the South Africans in the Montpellier side – Serfontein, Steyn and Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, to name a few – watched that Test between the All Blacks and Boks together and celebrated the result as a group. On the day of the game, however, Montpellier were playing away at Lyon. Serfontein watched the match at home with his family. He was part of the previous Bok side to beat the All Blacks – at Ellis Park in 2014. A distance of 12000km separated him from the team at the time of the big win in Wellington this September, and yet he shared in the players’ elation and sense of achievement.
‘It’s funny; when you’re over here in Europe, you speak to a lot of your teammates and opponents after games and training sessions about Tests being played on the other side of the world,’ he says. ‘I don’t like to criticise the Boks, because it wasn’t too long ago when I was part of the side.
‘We played some good rugby at the start of last year, but I was also there when we lost by a big margin against the All Blacks in Albany. The situation that followed … it felt like the whole country and every reporter was against us. So when I saw the Boks losing to Ireland last November and then to Argentina in Mendoza this year, I felt sorry for the players. I knew what they were going through.
‘On the other hand, I know how quickly things can change, and change they did. The players were hailed as heroes after that win against the All Blacks in Wellington, and rightly so. I still speak to the players in the team and I guess I still share in the mood, whether the team wins or loses.
‘They’re playing an exciting brand of rugby. They want to attack, and guys like Willie le Roux and Faf de Klerk have injected a lot of speed into their approach. The defence on display in that game against the All Blacks in Wellington was amazing. The longer that team stays together, the stronger it will be at the 2019 World Cup.’
Erasmus admitted afterwards that the team has to improve in the lead-up to the global tournament. Indeed, when one considers the 2018 season as a whole, the Bok coach may have more questions than answers about certain positions.
The search for the right midfield combination continues. Former coach Allister Coetzee backed Serfontein and Jesse Kriel to start on eight occasions in 2017. No other combination has enjoyed such an extended opportunity to grow, and Erasmus would do well to remember that experience is needed to win World Cups. Serfontein isn’t expecting any favours based on past performances. The only way he is going to force his way into the squad is through a series of influential showings in the Top 14.
‘Rassie is trying to build some depth in the lead-up to the World Cup. It’s a good plan, and watching from the outside I can see that he has made a lot of progress in that regard.
‘It’s unfortunate I’ve had this setback. It’s going to be harder for someone from the outside to force their way in at this stage. Rassie has made a lot of changes in the midfield over the past year, but I know for a fact that it’s always been his plan to try certain combinations against certain teams.
‘Those selections weren’t knee-jerk reactions. So it’s not like I can sit here in France and read anything into them, or believe there may be a gap for me to return. I know I will have to earn an opportunity the hard way. I won’t give up, though, as I would love to go to the World Cup.’
– This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.