Having served a two-year drug ban, former Stormers lock Gerbrandt Grobler is making headlines for all the right reasons with Racing 92. GAVIN MORTIMER reports.
He’s a tough man, is Gerbrandt Grobler. He’s had to be to survive all he’s endured in the past few years. Let’s leave the two-year drug suspension until later and start with the here and now, the rollercoaster season he’s experienced in Paris with Racing 92.
When the 25-year-old former Stormers lock arrived in the French capital in August 2016, he joined a club riding high. Six weeks earlier they had beaten Toulon at Barcelona’s Nou Camp to win their first Top 14 title in 26 years. But within the space of a few months Racing have gone from heaven to hell, and Grobler struggles to take it all in.
‘It’s been like a soap opera,’ he says with a rueful laugh. ‘With all that’s happened, it would make a great TV show. Guys arrested for this, guys arrested for that. This guy retires and then the president decides to form a new club. And on top of it all, I’ve seen snow for the first time.’
It’s his sense of humour that has eased Grobler through his first season in France. That and the fact he can draw on his past to help him deal with any adversity.
‘I have a glass-half-full approach to life,’ he says. ‘If something bad happens in life you have a choice: you can let it affect you, or you pick yourself up and go forward.’
That’s what Grobler did two years ago, when he was handed a two-year suspension after testing positive for drostanolone, an anabolic-androgenic steroid, during the 2014 Currie Cup.
‘I was broken,’ he says, reflecting on the ban. ‘You lose your house, your car, you lose everything. I lost 90% of my friends.’
He speaks candidly of the events that led him to make that fateful decision to take a banned substance.
‘I was 21 at the time, young and stupid, and struggling with serious ankle and shoulder injuries,’ he says. ‘They weren’t getting any better, and I knew I needed to start playing again or I could lose my contract. I had my back against the wall and had reached a point where I thought, “OK, I’ve done all I can, so what else can I do?”’
Grobler admits that for a couple of months after the ban he ‘blew up pretty badly and lost myself’. He stopped caring about anything. ‘Then one day I looked in the mirror and said, “You have to make this work for you”.’
So Grobler stopped feeling sorry for himself, earned his professional hunter’s licence and set up his own business in that field, forgetting all about rugby. Or nearly. Always there at the back of his mind were the words of Schalk Burger, one of the Stormers to reach out to him after news of his positive test broke.
‘When I told the guys, Schalk came up to me and said, “Don’t give up”.’ He also told Grobler to turn the suspension into a positive; namely that a two-year rest from rugby for a player his age could prolong his career by four seasons.
One of Grobler’s fellow hunters had been a pretty good provincial player before concentrating on farming, and he unwittingly also had a hand in Grobler’s rebirth.
‘He told me that he wished he hadn’t retired from playing so early, and I suddenly realised I didn’t want to hit a certain age and think “what if”. The next day I got on a plane and flew to the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport.’
That was in late-2015, and within a few months Grobler was on his way to Paris to sign a three-year deal with Racing 92, joining a squad that includes Dan Carter, Juan Imhoff, Joe Rokocoko, Chris Masoe and Johan Goosen. Or at least it did, at the time. Goosen’s sudden retirement in December was just one of the episodes in the Racing 92 soap opera, along with Dan Carter’s drunk-driving charge and Ali Williams’ arrest for allegedly buying cocaine.
With all the off-field scandals, it’s no surprise that Racing’s form has fallen away and they’ve a fight on their hands if they’re to finish in the top six of the Top 14 and qualify for the knockout phase of the championship. Grobler’s form hasn’t fallen away, however, and he’s showing the same class he did when he burst on to the scene with Western Province.
Yet no matter how well Grobler plays, he will, in the eyes of some, be forever tainted by past misdemeanours. He knows he did something wrong; that he damaged the image of the sport he loves, but at the same time he’s grateful for everything he went through.
‘It made me a better person,’ he says. ‘It made me realise what a small world professional rugby players live in. It’s a bubble, and it’s only when you step outside the bubble that you see how small it is.’
There was talk when Grobler signed for Racing of perhaps playing for France one day, but that was before the FFR announced that in future only French citizens will wear the blue jersey. Of course, what he’d love most, is to play for the Boks – a distant dream, he admits, given his current location.
‘But if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s to take life day by day,’ he says. ‘A couple of years ago I was on the brink of giving up rugby and now I’m playing for Racing. All I can do is play good, hard rugby and keep hoping. After all, if you don’t have hope, what do you have?’
For nearly 20 years, Gerbrandt’s dad, Dr Douw Grobler, headed the Kruger National Park’s wildlife capturing and veterinary services unit, a job that allowed his son to grow up among some of South Africa’s most spectacular wildlife.
‘It was pretty fun,’ says Grobler. ‘As a kid I went to school in the national park and I didn’t go much during Grades 1 and 2. I remember helping him catch buffalo and relocate elephant. I had some pretty close encounters with animals emerging from the bush.’
The relocation projects entailed transporting the animals to other parts of Africa and the US, New Zealand and Australia.
Grobler explains that there is no contradiction between hunting and conservation, saying: ‘If hunting is done humanely and correctly, it is the best form of conservation, but the media nowadays just go with one angle.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine