At the age of 19, Jan-Hendrik Wessels is already the most-talked-about schoolboy rugby prop in recent history with his own YouTube highlights reel.
Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White has called him a definite future Springbok, and he certainly fits the billing as one of Vodacom’s ‘Future Champs’ of Loftus Versfeld.
At just under two metres tall and weighing around 120kg, Wessels seems more than equipped to fill the shoes of some of the great front rowers to have pulled on a Bulls jersey. He’s hoping to prove exactly this when he gets his chance.
‘I’m still working on wearing the Bulls jersey more regularly. There’s no doubt that wearing this jersey is a massive honour. There have been some great players to wear it before me, and I’m working hard on getting myself into this jersey on a regular basis,’ says the young star, who honed his talent at Grey College in Bloemfontein and then in a brief stint with French side Clermont before joining the Bulls.
And he’ll never forget that first training session with the Bulls.
‘I remember my first training session very well. It was a scrum session. It doesn’t get more real than that. It’s where you need to stand your ground, and as a prop this is where you get rated. Coach Daan Human [the Springboks’ scrum coach] was there. It was easily the toughest session I’ve had in my life. It was hard. That’s when I realised, “OK, this is what professional rugby is all about”.’
But as hard as it may have been, it certainly hasn’t detracted from the one thing that has been the driving force behind Wessels’ decision to pursue his dream of professional rugby.
‘Enjoyment. That pure enjoyment of waking up and knowing that this is my job. I think when it first dawned on me that I can have a career playing rugby, that’s when I realised that this is something I want to pursue in my future.’
And he is very clear about what he sees as the next step on his journey as a ‘Future Champ’ with the Vodacom Bulls.
‘Nailing down that starting position. That’s my focus. I want to be part of this team and leave the jersey in a better place than when I was given it. It’s important for me to keep working hard for that starting position, and to never give up. And when I get that position to keep working hard.
‘When I was at school, I had a head coach who I felt was picking on me in my Grade 8, 9 and 10 years. But then, when I started to play under him, I realised that he was mentoring me. He was teaching me to keep my feet on the ground and to always work hard.’
The Bulls will definitely give him that opportunity. Nothing breeds hard work like the legacy of a union of great players.
‘Walking into a new environment as a young player, and especially one like the Bulls’, you’re a bit shocked and don’t know what to expect. You’re being added to a group of players you looked up to and who are now teammates. It’s a massive honour for me to walk into Loftus Versfeld and have the calibre of teammates I now have, and to be able to learn from them. And when you have a coach like Jake White who backs you, well, you can’t ask for anything more than that.’
Wessels is definitely focused on making the most of the chance he got.
‘I’m very competitive. I don’t like losing. I always try to be the best and I won’t settle for second best. And that’s what I bring to the Bulls. I believe I am the future of the Bulls because I want to leave the jersey in a better place, and I strive to do my best every day. I am surrounded by the great players of the present and I am learning from them. I think that’s the best situation for a young player to be in.’