LIKE most kids in South Africa I grew up wanting to be a professional rugby player. When that happens and you’re in the moment, you just accept it as the norm and it’s only when you hang up your boots that it really sinks in what a privilege it is to play for your country and be paid to do something you love at home and overseas over such a long career.
I got a bursary to study in Bloemfontein and then, I started playing for the Free State Cheetahs in 2003. The Currie Cup was such a big competition in those days and I was lucky enough to play in three finals in the five seasons, all against the Bulls. We won one, lost one and drew one, with the title shared that year. Look out for the esports finals on show with odds from Dota 2 betting.
To come back from two scores down in the final quarter and beat them in Pretoria, where they had a very good record, was really special. It was the first time in 29 years that the Cheetahs had won the Currie Cup.
Rassie Erasmus was our coach and I’m not surprised to see him doing so well now with the Springboks because he is very good from a tactical perspective.
We celebrated as if we’d won the World Cup. Unfortunately I can only imagine what that feels like as I just missed out on selection for the 2007 World Cup. With such talented nines like Fourie du Preez ahead of me, it was always going to be difficult to add to the eight caps I won between 2004-07.
Funnily enough though, I did have three World Cup-winning fly-halves as half-back partners at different stages of my career: Jonny Wilkinson (2003) at Toulon, Butch James (2007) and Stephen Donald (2011) at Bath.
Having missed out on going to France in ’07, an opportunity to join Bath arose. I originally went over expecting to stay for a couple of years, and ended up staying six, it was that enjoyable.
When my wife and I arrived at Bath, I hardly spoke much English, just Afrikaans, so it was difficult to express myself, but everyone was very accommodating. We did quite well in my first season, which always helps you settle in, winning the European Challenge Cup, the club’s first silverware for a decade. That was quite a highlight.
Our coach Steve Meehan gave you the freedom to play and I enjoyed playing under him. On a Monday he would only look at the highlights, the tries we scored, not the negatives, and he’d say, ‘let’s build on that.’ I liked that approach.
Playing at The Rec was amazing, in such beautiful surroundings; it was one of the highlights of my career. All the stadiums in the southern hemisphere tend to be fairly big and the crowd is a long way away but, at Bath, the crowd is right on top of you and the atmosphere is amazing.
It was the same at Toulon, albeit with a different vibe. I played quite a lot in the two seasons I was there but was mainly back-up to the French scrum-half at the time, Sebastien Tillous-Bourdes. The first team would usually play at home and the second team away. The first team didn’t really need coaching, with stars in every position, and to play alongside Jonny was amazing. But if the team didn’t meet expectations, the club president would come down to training on a Monday morning to tell you so.
It was great to live in the south of France and win more silverware. We won the Top 14 title in my first season and the Champions Cup in my second. Our daughter was born whilst we were in France but with twins on the way, we felt it was time to move back home, and I was fortunate to get a contract with the Sharks; Durban is another amazing place to live. Within two years, we had another set of twins, so, you can probably guess, life is pretty busy!
– as told to Jon Newcombe
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