Harlequins centre Andre Esterhuizen sets sights on Lions tour

Andre Esterhuizen is a long way from home. The 26-year-old centre, who cuts an imposing figure at 6ft4in and 18st 2lbs, was born in the university town of Potchefstroom in South Africa’s North West Province. Now, he is slowly settling into his new home not far from Harlequins headquarters in Twickenham.

So what has lured this gravel-voiced Saffa so far north?

“Two main reasons,” Esterhuizen tells The Rugby Paper. “First I want to secure a better life for my family and we believe living in England provides that. The second is that I want to get back in the Springboks set-up. This is the best place for me to achieve that goal.”

Esterhuizen is very clear he “does not want to bad mouth South Africa.” But there is no denying that the crime stats – where roughly 58 murders are reported every day – are a cause for concern. Esterhuizen has a 19-month-old son and his wife is expecting in March.

“I always make a point of speaking about South Africa in a positive light,” Esterhuizen says. “But it’s important to be honest. I do feel that my family is safer living here.”

There’s also the variable of time spent away from home. When playing Super Rugby for the Sharks – the Durban-based union he represented for six years from 2014 – he would often spend weeks on the road during the annual Australasian leg of the competition. There were also exhausting trips to Argentina and Japan to contend with that would deny him the chance to watch his baby boy grow.

“Being close to Heathrow Airport was one of the reasons I joined Quins,” he explains, citing an unusual component in his decision-making. “I’m just a short drive home once the plane lands. Even if we’re playing far away I still feel close enough to my family.”

Harlequins are paying Esterhuizen a lot of money to wear the club’s famous colours. A reported £340,000 a year helped turn his head away from an offer from Sale Sharks and a few from France.

Not that the eye-watering figure brings any extra pressure: “That part of the business has nothing to do with my game,” he says. “I don’t feel I have to live up to that number and it won’t impact how I play. The money is for my family and to make sure they have a good life. I play this game because I love it and because I am ambitious. These are the things that drive me, not money.”

Which brings us to the second point concerning his move to south-west London. Esterhuizen last wore the green and gold of the Springboks on August 17, 2019 in a 24-18 win over Argentina in Pretoria. In last year’s Super Rugby campaign he was the only player to register more than 200 carries in addition to more than 200 tackle attempts. His bulldozing frame offered plenty of go-forward ball but he was always going to struggle to displace Damien de Allende as coach Rassie Erasmus’ first-choice 12.

That meant a spot on the bench was the best Esterhuizen could hope for. Erasmus’ game-plan revolved around a six-two split on the bench. That meant the two replacement backs had to have enough versatility to occupy multiple positions.

François Steyn is as versatile on a rugby field as any man alive and was tailor made for this forwards-orientated approach. Esterhuizen was left uncalled when the World Cup squad was announced and remained so even after fellow centre Jesse Kriel was injured in the opening game against New Zealand. The more flexible Damien Willemse – who can play anywhere between 10 and 15 – got the nod instead.

“I never want to lose my physicality but I want to be seen as someone who has a good touch, who can distribute, who can put people into space, who can offer something with the boot,” Esterhuizen says as if recalling bullet points from a checklist. “Adaptability is so important in that respect. Of course you work hard in training to establish combinations but to develop that flair, that special touch, you need to be adaptable.”

Five different nationalities –England, Italy, Australia, the USA and South Africa – are represented in midfield alone at Harlequins. New signing Lewis Gjaltema from New Zealand at scrum-half makes it five nationalities – as well as England, Ireland, Scotland and Argentina – present in the half-back positions. With so many different cultures kicking about, adaptability is an inevitable by-product. At least that’s what Esterhuizen is banking on.

“It’s so exciting being surrounded by so many different ways of looking at the game,” he says. “We work to get on the same page, and when you’re on the field in a match we’re all speaking the same language of rugby, but just talking to guys from different parts of the world automatically makes you think of things in a different way. That all adds up. Working with these guys can only help my game.”

Esterhuizen speaks glowingly of the team environment cultivated by director of rugby Paul Gustard. He says that collective and personal ambitions are not mutually exclusive and are spoken about in the same breath.

“We want to finish in the top four,” he says. “If I play at my best I can help contribute to that goal. And if I play at my best I can get back in the national team. Those two things go hand in hand. I’d love to be a part of the British and Irish Lions tour next year.”

If he does get back in the fold, he could square up against England’s captain Owen Farrell. The two will forever be linked by one explosive incident in the closing moments of a tight Test at Twickenham in 2018. With the Springboks down by a point two minutes after the final hooter, Esterhuizen ran with ball in hand against the grain. Farrell read the line and clattered him, forcing a knock-on. On first viewing the challenge seemed suspect. Referee Angus Gardner asked for a second opinion.

Power game: Andre Esterhuizen is brought down by Austrlia’s David Pocock in action for South Africa during the 2018 Rugby Championship. Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images

An audible groan emanated around the grand stadium when the replay was shown. Farrell had clearly not used his arms. Everyone waited for Gardner to blow his whistle for a penalty well within Handre Pollard’s range.

Except Gardner didn’t do that. He deemed the tackle fair and blew his whistle for the end of the game. It is an infamous incident that still stings South African fans.

Esterhuizen says: “When it happened I didn’t know it was illegal. Only after I saw the highlight did I think it was obviously illegal. But that’s rugby. I moved on straight after the game. People have this impression that Owen and I don’t like each other. We’ve never talked to each other about it. But it’s a shame that Quins won’t be playing Saracens. That could have been interesting.”

Esterhuizen has, however, allowed himself some schadenfreude over the incident. He confesses to cheering with extra oomph when Cheslin Kolbe’s sidestep turned Farrell into a Ferris wheel en route to the World Cup-clinching try in Yokohama last year.

“That was a great moment,” Esterhuizen says with an almost guilty chuckle. “It felt a little like payback for me.”

Esterhuizen is quick to turn our conversation back to the future and away from the past. Behind him lies missed opportunities and rejection. Ahead is the endless expanse of opportunity.

Sterling performances in England and Europe could see him get another opportunity back home. He may be far away from where he came from, but he hasn’t lost sight of where he intends on going.

DANIEL GALLAN

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