My earliest memories of rugby were on the farm that myself and my two older brothers grew up on. Having two older brothers meant I had to toughen up and often try and tackle them.
I wasn’t drawn to rugby from the earliest of ages and we didn’t play rugby at my primary school but then I moved to Boland Landbou school in Paarl and played rugby like every other kid.
My Dad took me to the 1995 Rugby World Cup at Newlands for the New Zealand versus England match. That was the day that I think I really got into rugby. The game was spectacular, the atmosphere and being in the stadium really caught my interest.
South Africa going on to win the World Cup obviously helped as well.
I enjoyed the schoolboy rugby and then went to Stellenbosch to play up until U21’s for Maties.
At that time, Western Province had some top tight head props in Eddie Andrews, Cobus Visagie and Faan Rautenbach.
These were senior players and I was just a young guy trying to make my way and the best thing that happened at this time was that Province were honest with me and told me I didn’t have a future there.
I was offered a contract with the Border Bulldogs, did a full pre-season with them and I was then called up for the Sharks in Durban.
My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, thought that I had been to the Border as part of being in the army! I told her I wasn’t that old and that it was for rugby. Her lack of rugby knowledge is probably why we get on so well!
I packed a bag of clothes, had the cutlery from my grandparents’ old caravan and off I went with a friend of mine, Pete Barker, up to East London.
I lived on a mattress in a house with five other rugby guys on the living room floor.
Decisions needed to be made with regards to my rugby and my work ethic so I got my head down and worked hard. I knew I would need a bit of luck along the way but my decision, and attitude, was selected.
I’d played SA Schools, Craven week and things like that but this was the big world now.
Here I was at the Sharks with players like Mark Andrews, Warren Britz, Stefan Terblanche and Deon Kayser.
The team were full of stars and they were predominantly English speaking so I had to work hard on that as well because I had always spoken Afrikaans.
The Sharks was a huge learning curve for me and I learnt so much there. With those players around me I was taught about respect on and off the field. Respect the ball on it and respect your team mates off it. The values I picked up in those informative years still shape what I believe in today.
It doesn’t matter if I was playing for Maties or the Springboks, you have to respect each other, do your job and you have to enjoy it.
Being told I wasn’t need at Western Province was obviously a negative but you can take that negative one of two ways. You can say that you’re not good enough having been cast out or you can go and show them that you are good enough. They did me a favour in all honesty as I went to Natal and not long after, I was a Springbok.
Being 10 hours away from my family and friends, I needed to grow up quickly as a man and that is exactly what happened. It was hard work and I had to work hard at it but in any walk of life you need to that kind of ethos.
Take my first Springbok tour for instance. We went to the Northern Hemisphere and got beaten badly by Scotland and England in consecutive weeks. An awful experience that I had to put behind me, go back to South Africa with and start again.
Injuries started to plague my career and these are tough mental challenges as well. Look at a player like Jean de Villiers, how many World Cups or big opportunities did he miss because of injury but he came back every time.
Mine always seemed to come at the wrong time as well. Just as I was finding form and was close to another call up I picked up another injury.
The first big injury that altered my career path was in my right arm and that was why I moved to loose head. All the nerves were severely damaged but luckily, I had an amazing coach in Dick Muir who believed in me and helped me adjust to the other side of the scrum.
The injuries are tough and so is the rehab but you are a professional player and you belong to a team, so you have to stay as involved as you possibly can and make sure that you are there every Saturday to help out or show your support. It’s a family at the end of the day.
Any player that says they can’t even watch their team because it’s so tough, doesn’t sit well with me.
Twice during these injury lay offs I was told that my career was over but I got second opinions and was told I could carry on.
One occasion I was still young and even in tears on the phone to my dad but in those moments I realised that I needed to make sure that if it did end, I was ready for it.
One of my sponsors was an insurance company so I started working with them throughout my injuries.
Ironically, we didn’t have contract insurance then and teams were able to tear up your contract after six months out so it can be a scary time as well. They were huge wake up calls for me those injury breaks.
Even when I started playing again, I carried on working at the insurance company, if just for a few hours a week. I learnt about the office environment and how people did business which was and still is invaluable knowledge for me.
My career was progressing well and although the Sharks had a bit of a dip in form, we were getting better and we had a strong team again, whilst my desire to play for the Springboks was still burning inside.
I had always wanted to play overseas though as after a certain age, those teams wouldn’t entertain taking you on.
Saracens and Leinster offered me contracts and initially, I wasn’t keen on going to Saracens as it was full of South Africans and I wanted to be different. I wanted new experiences and not just sit in a place that was going to be like a home from home surrounded by South Africans. There were lots of them at Saracens…….
I flew to London whilst on crutches from another knee operation but within minutes of seeing the surrounding area in Harpenden and meeting Brendan Venter, I knew that Saracens was the perfect fit for me.
My eyes had been opened to how good being a professional rugby player could be. I’m not talking about money; I am talking about how a club looks after it’s players and how those players look after each other.
We were a true rugby family at Saracens and that is one of the biggest reasons that they have been riding that wave for so many years. The foundations are rock solid.
The success at Saracens isn’t just down to a load of South Africans that get along well, you have long standing Englishmen there that instil those values. Great stalwarts like Andy Saull, Adam Powell, Steve Borthwick and Alex Goode.
Look at the Crusaders and it’s the same story. You never read bad things in the press about that team and that is why they have longevity in their success.
Anyway, that year and a half was amazing but the injuries were racking up and amazing players like Mako Vunipola were coming through so I knew if I wanted to keep playing, I was going to have to leave and that is when the Stormers called. Again, I got on a flight using crutches and headed back to South Africa.
I would have loved to have gone back to the Sharks but the Stormers were the ideal fit because that is where my true support network was. My closest family and friends lived down here.
It was a great year with Province and we had a superb team. We won the Currie Cup at King’s Park against the Sharks and I wasn’t to know it then but those were the last five minutes of my career on the pitch that day. I look back at that fondly.
I wasn’t supposed to play as I had a neck injury but there were so many injuries and the doctor said I couldn’t bugger up my neck any more than it already was so I said to Alistair Coetzee, if I can’t be paralysed, I’m in. Those last five minutes on the field will always be very special for me.
I was ready for another season of Stormers rugby but my lower back wasn’t right. I saw a specialist and this time he was right; my career was over.
Emotional news to take, my first thoughts were: Shit. I need to phone my Dad.
What was I going to do now? I was 33, I wanted to make it to 35 before retiring but it wasn’t to be. I needed to find a job but luckily I knew what that job was.
I play in a local poker game with some friends of mine, I’ll mention no names……and they asked me what I was going to do next?
To cut a long story short, two of my friends put me in contact with a local insurance company and here I am today.
It was all very quick and it meant I didn’t dwell too long on the end of my career. It was a saving grace that’s for sure.
I miss rugby; I really do but I get my fix from coaching the forwards at my old school which I enjoy immensely.
If anyone says to you that they don’t miss rugby then they are either already depressed or lying to you. There is nothing bad about being a professional rugby player. The only bad stuff is what you cause yourself.
When I am not busy at work there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss it. There are times when I see these school boys complaining and want to give them a reality check. Enjoy every match, one day you will miss all of this.
You have to plan though. For after rugby I mean.
Retiring at 35 and living until 70 or 80 is a long stretch. You get forgotten in this game very quickly.
Wearing a pair of certain sunglasses and getting hits on social media will not help you for the rest of your life. You aren’t a Kardashian.
It’s the guys in the second tier of professional rugby that I truly worry about. Are they building up contacts and networking for jobs after rugby as they won’t be able to financially sustain their lives for very long at all?
It took me until the age of 27 to realise I needed to make plans and thank goodness I did because life without rugby is tough enough without adding on financial pressures and not knowing where your life is heading.
At Saracens, we were all sent to work at Allianz and I will forever be grateful for that because not only did it look good on my CV, it gave me an insight into the ‘real world’ outside of rugby.
A world that all players will have to step into eventually.