Lions youngster Tyrone Green has the potential to become South Africa’s answer to Damian McKenzie, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
During the early stages of this Vodacom Super Rugby season, Lions coach Swys de Bruin made his intentions clear: ‘I have to keep on backing the youngsters; it’s something that has to happen this year,’ he told SA Rugby magazine ahead of the round five battle against the Rebels.
The week before, De Bruin had made several changes to the Lions’ starting lineup, opting to give opportunities to several up-and-coming players against the Jaguares. For the most part, it was a move that paid off, with the Lions roaring into a 47-13 lead at the 50-minute mark. Although the Johannesburg-based side failed to maintain that momentum in the final half an hour, they still managed to come away with a much-needed win in a match that showcased some encouraging signs from the Lions’ ‘next-generation’ brigade.
‘There are a lot of players who are still learning their trade at this level, but the good thing is that we have been working with these youngsters for a while now,’ De Bruin explained. ‘We’ve all come a long way together, and it’s about building the system.’
As we continued to discuss the Lions ‘cubs’ available in that system, De Bruin identified former Junior Springbok star Tyrone Green as one of the players he was extremely excited about. The 21-year-old was duly picked to make his run-on debut at fullback against the Rebels, and proved to be one of the standout performers as the Lions remarkably overturned a 33-5 deficit to snatch a thrilling victory.
It’s not that Green was a completely unknown entity. Last year he made a name for himself after producing a sequence of dazzling displays for Wits in the Varsity Cup and impressed with the Junior Boks, starting five games and scoring three tries in the World Rugby U20 Championship.
Yet, when SA Rugby magazine caught up with Green a few weeks after his Super Rugby debut, even he conceded that the occasion exceeded his expectations. As it is, according to Sanzaar’s stats, he completed 85m, 13 carries and beat as many as nine defenders in a remarkably composed performance against a well-drilled Rebels side.
‘That first start was a surreal experience; suddenly I was in a team playing against world-class Test players such as Will Genia and Quade Cooper, but that gave me more motivation,’ Green reflects. ‘That step up [to Super Rugby] was so exciting, but once I was mentally prepared and knew I was starting at 15, I just tried to focus on my preparation. And once I had got my first touch out of the way, the nerves settled and it actually felt like an easy transition from there.’
Green has certainly come a long way in a short time. As a youngster who always boasted talent in abundance, he won a bursary at Jeppe High School for Boys, but then had to contend with two serious knee injuries that blighted his progress at school level.
‘I played only about four months of rugby in two years, and that proved to be mentally and physically taxing. Thankfully, I was able to get back for my matric year, and I knew that was going to be a really important one to take my game to the next level. There was a bit of pressure, but I think that brought the best out of me.’
As it turned out, Green progressed to play U18 Craven Week for the Golden Lions, before earning selection for the SA Schools A team. By all accounts, a star was born.
From there, Green’s natural pathway took him into the Lions’ junior ranks, but he also came into his own as one of the standout performers for Wits, a team that emerged as the surprise package of the 2018 Varsity Cup season. Although Wits ultimately suffered a heavy loss to eventual champions Maties, they exceeded expectations on the way to the semi-finals, winning four and drawing one of their eight games, which included the scalps of Tuks and UCT.
‘The Varsity Cup provides a platform to have a lot fun with your rugby,’ Green enthuses. ‘You learn quickly, but you are also able to express yourself, and that’s what I enjoyed. I thrive on the attacking side of the game, and try to catch the opposition unaware with my intensity and by backing my instincts. That’s something that helps a lot.’
According to Wits manager Ferdinand Kelly, it was a ‘breakthrough year’ for Green: ‘He is an extremely talented and versatile player with an understanding of the game that surpasses many. He has the talent and the X factor to be playing rugby at the highest possible level some day.’
Green would go on to start on the wing as the Golden Lions claimed a 58-24 victory against the Vodacom Blue Bulls in the 2018 U21 Provincial Championship final. It capped off a career-defining year for the talented utility back, and paved the way to his surprise Super Rugby involvement.
By the end of round 11, Green had banked 241 minutes of game time, having caught the eye with his powerful step, natural attacking instincts and raw pace.
‘I was hoping to at least make my Super Rugby debut this year; I always tend to set my expectations quite high because I like to push myself, but to have had a fair amount of game time already is something I’m really chuffed about,’ he says. ‘To have the coaches backing me meant a lot. Their message has just been for me to stick to my natural strengths, and to try and keep evolving as I go.’
Green explains that the also banked some sage advice from experienced Lions and Bok flyhalf Elton Jantjies.
‘Something Elton said has stuck with me. He told me that the goal should be to become the best in the world, not just the best at your union. That’s something I always keep in the back of my mind. I’d like to be able to compare myself to Damian McKenzie, who I think is one of the best out there. So I just want to keep working hard, and pushing myself.’
The McKenzie reference is an intriguing one. With both players gently tipping the scales at around the same weight and height (Green has a slight size advantage at 1.80m, 87kg), there is quite a striking physical resemblance. Beyond that, though, Green is similarly comfortable playing at flyhalf and fullback, while he is a naturally-gifted player in a similar mould to the All Blacks star.
‘I mostly payed at flyhalf from Grade 8 to 11, but in my matric year I moved to fullback,’ Green explains. ‘It’s a move that I enjoyed, and fullback is the position where I can see myself settling in the future. I was always a very attacking flyhalf, so to have the time and space at fullback was really beneficial. For a lot of teams, the flyhalf and the fullback interchange quite a lot, and you see someone like McKenzie doing a lot of that.
‘I know he’s not that much older than me, but I think my style of play is similar to his, and he is one of the players that I’ve almost moulded my game around. I love the way he approaches the game.’
Green could certainly do a whole lot worse than emulate the feats of McKenzie, who is undoubtedly one of the most lethal attacking backs in world rugby. After all, one thing is certain, the young rising star from the Lions is certainly not short of ambition.
‘For the remainder of the year, I just want to maintain build on this experience I’ve gained in Super Rugby. I want to keep pushing myself to the limits with the hopes of putting myself in Springbok contention in the near future.’