I WENT through some tough times starting off in my career, combining playing with a job I wasn’t passionate about, and I also struggled with depression.
Looking back though, those three years as a raw player at Griquas, on a low salary and with very little exposure, were really good for my rugby. I had to dig deep and work really hard to develop as a true professional. I think if everything happens too quickly or too easy for you, it’s not as sweet.
Things picked up for me when, one day, Danie Vermeulen (Namibia’s head coach) called me. I wasn’t in the mood to train, but I went along, in the worst shape of my life, and it was tough, proper old-school. For some reason I just kept going back and that period changed the journey of my life.
I had some good people around me who believed in me, but it was up to me to stop feeling sorry for myself and say, ‘Listen, if you want something, you have to go out and get it’. I just kept going forward and never stopped.
I got a contract with the Bulls and that was a great time from a development point of view, I learned a lot. But I just wasn’t getting the game time I felt I deserved. Aged 26 and in much better shape, I felt it was time to try something new and look at playing overseas.
My first thought was to go to Japan because I had an option there, and I could make some good money, but Ed Griffiths and Brendan Venter kept calling me.
The money on offer at Saracens was a lot less, but I’d worked with them before and they told me I had so much more to achieve, and I could achieve it with them.
I wanted to play against the best in the world and I felt that would be the case in the Premiership.
I decided to go to England and see what happened, and it turns out it was a really good life choice for me.
My time at Saracens was extremely special. It was the club where I found my feet, it felt like my place, where I should be.
There were a few of us that came over from South Africa, all relatively unknown and hungry to succeed, happy to have a second chance. The club was so good to us, and that is part of why we were successful, we wanted to repay them for what they had done for us.
To get to the Premiership final in 2009/10 was a great achievement but to lose it, to Leicester, in the final minute was so disappointing. The next year we played them again, and once again it came down to the end. We defended for 10 minutes on our goal-line, four points up, and this time we held on. That was so special.
When I was with the Bulls, we won the Super Rugby title and the Currie Cup, but I wasn’t really involved that much. At Saracens, I felt like a key player; that year I was nominated as Players’ Player of the Year. It was an incredible season. We had massive belief – we knew that even if we were 20 points down, we could get back into a game. It wasn’t arrogance, we just believed in the system, the coaches and everyone around us, we knew it was the right thing to do to be successful, and we were.
In 2012 I suffered a serious knee injury – a high tibial osteotomy – that a lot of people thought I wouldn’t get back from. I was out for more than two years. It was tough getting back and the last three seasons were very painful, I had my metal plates and screws in my kit bag to remind me that I’d come through hell and to go out and have fun and take every game as a bonus.
England has done so much for me and my family. I am extremely proud to have played there, and to stand out there and captain my country in England, at the 2015 World Cup – my third tournament – was very, very special. Namibia hasn’t reached its potential yet as a rugby nation; I am hoping we can get there in the near future.
– as told to Jon Newcombe
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