NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE
EXCLUSIVE: Eugene Eloff, a two-time former Under-19 World Cup winner, shares a few success stories of players that made it when no one gave them a chance.
There is so much negativity surrounding South African rugby at present.
With the Currie Cup in full swing, there are mixed emotions over the standard of some matches.
Many feel the Curry Cup, for almost a century the premier domestic competition in the world, is losing its status as an elite tournament.
Sadly the empty stadiums seem to reflect this sentiment.
The Rugby Championship is getting underway this week, with the rugby pundits and supporters waiting in anticipation to see if the Springboks can reclaim some of their lost glory and pride.
Despite all the doom and gloom, I have decided to bring a message of hope for those players and coaches with ambition.
I just want to reiterate that anything is really possible if you really want it badly. Just keep on working at it and never give up on your dream.
I am going to share a few success stories of players that made it when no one gave them a chance.
I would like to kick off with a short story of an experience I had when coaching at Kempton Park high school in the early 1990s.
I had a brilliant scrumhalf, Bennie Fouche. He had the potential to become a top provincial/international player. However, he was in a comfort zone, doing only what was necessary and going through motions. In that time the second team scrumhalf, Danie Louw, was a hard-working, determined and committed player. He had a few blinders for his team, so I decided to drop Bennie and play Danie in the first team.
As I had a one-on-one discussion with Bennie, explaining his potential and telling him why he was being dropped, he looked at me with disbelieve and walked away. After about 10 steps he turned around, walked back to me looked me in the eyes and said: "You can not keep a good man down". He worked harder, played brilliant, made Craven Week and was ready for big things in his rugby career. Sadly Bennie died in a car accident a year after school.
So what's my point actually?
Dishonest administrators, subjective coaches, people in high places with a lack of vision, lack of knowledge of the game, without integrity, with their own agendas, riding the gravy train, living on their own planet, people with overblown egos and spineless leaders - that is just about it - can't get you down.
Don't allow them to!
In the sporting arena, there are many amazing stories of stars who have reached the highest rung on the ladder of success, despite difficult circumstances. Somewhere along the line, they must have heard they will not succeed, but they did and they silenced their critics.
Along the way, there will always be individuals too keen to take credit for these success stories.
However, experience has taught me various people play a role in shaping the career of a star: parents, coaches, mentors and friends - each one contributing on a different level.
In the end, it is the hard work, discipline, effort and sacrifice of the athlete that makes the difference. The rest are merely facilitators en route to success.
Here are a few brief examples of players and a referee for whom I have the highest regard and respect.
Joe van Niekerk
Since childhood "Big Joe" faced many challenges in his personal life and his rugby career. Nevertheless, he was an inspiration to his teammates, always smiling in the face of adversity.
As a young King Edwards student, Joe played Craven Week for three years. After his time with the Lions, he joined Western Province, where his performance started declining. Rugby took a back seat, and eventually he disappeared from the scene.
Rumours circulated, until I received a call from Joe one day, asking me if I could help him become the player he once was. In Cape Town, my conditioning coach and good friend Gerhard Jordaan put Joe through his paces on Bloubergstrand and in gym sessions.
Back to full fitness, Joe grabbed the opportunity and signed the smallish contract we offered him at the Lions, just to get his foot in the door. And Joe was back!
He played Super Rugby in 2009, returned to the Springbok fold and the rest is history. He also landed a big contract with the prestigious French club Toulon, which he later captained. His strength of character and perseverance made him a legend!
In my early days at Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) I got to know André as a talented player and also quite an imaginative dancer - hence his nickname "Disco King".
During those years I was a selector at the RAU Under-20 trials, with a specific focus on scrumhalf and flyhalf talent. In the selection committee meeting the absence of relevant notes by selectors astounded me. My first choice for scrummy was easy: Andre. He was, however, summarily rejected by a professor because he was deemed "too small". So my second choice, Kenneth Ford, got the nod.
Knowing my work there was done, I took my notepad and excused myself.
A year later, in 1998, I was coaching with the Lions and Petoors got selected for the SA Under-21 side. This little guy went from strength to strength and developed into a world-renowned flyhalf. One of the many highlights of his career was his winning a penalty kick against the All Blacks in Rustenburg in 2006, which basically saved Jake White's national coaching job.
With his personality, knowledge and sense of rugby, Andre has the potential to become an outstanding coach.
"Bobs", that unique former Rastafarian from Rondebosch, was the first black SA schools captain. As a talented flank forward he had the world at his feet, but because of bad choices, wrong mentors and terrible guidance he lost his track in all respects.
One day Rian Oberholzer, former CEO of SARU, found Bobs amongst a group of homeless people, begging for money. He called me. I met a skinny, emaciated Bobs at the airport, where he told me he was still very keen to get his career back on track.
I welcomed him with open arms at the Lions. But he was lonely. So I got his good friend Oginga Siwundla, a skilled wing from Cape Town (they knew each other from Rondebosch) to join the Lions. With these two talented Rastas, the Lions beat the Sharks in the national U21 Final in Durban in 1999.
I moved Bobs to his favourite position at inside centre, where he flourished and eventually made his mark as a Springbok.
Later he joined Western Province and then played overseas. I still think he stopped playing too soon. Luckily he is not completely lost to the game because he now works as a rugby commentator coach at the University of Johannesburg.
I always enjoyed the company of Bobs and Oginga. We shared some memorable times and I particularly enjoyed listening to the rap songs they came up with.
I first saw Bryan in 1999, when he played scrumhalf for the Lions' B-side during a Craven Week in Port Elizabeth. Here the role of politics and dishonest coaches and selectors became clear to me because the A-side's scrummy was not nearly as good as Bryan.
After the game, I met the diminutive No.9 and his dad, Bernie. I offered him a junior contract as outside centre with the Lions and he accepted.
We planned his career at my friend's coffee shop in Northcliff. Part of his preparation was to do research on Tim Horan and Brian O'Driscoll.
I wrote down his goals on a piece of paper and added: "One day you will be a legend".
That was the start of his success story. Hugo van As, former Transvaal centre and our U20 coach, played a huge role in Bryan's development in the midfield.
After Bryan moved up to the Lions' Currie Cup team in 2004, he scored two brilliant tries at outside centre in a match against Western Province. A few weeks later he was a Springbok!
He eventually joined the Blue Bulls team, where he became a legendary wing.
As a player for French club side Toulon he is highly valued and commands the same respect for his humanity and ethics as was the case in South Africa. To this day Bryan is a top international star and role model for many youngsters in our country.
Willie le Roux
When I mentioned Willie le Roux's name and discussed his profile at a Boland Rugby Union meeting, there were several opinions that he was too lightweight and small and a poor defender.
I did not know much about Willie, a player from the Strand, except that he showed great promise and was on his way back from France. In video footage recorded when he played for Maties, I saw he had something special. My argument was that you can teach a player how to tackle, but not how to attack - the typical X-factor player.
It took a lot of persuasion, but eventually Boland offered Willie a small contract. I immediately liked his sense of humour. After a couple of average games and some negative comments, Boland made a clean sweep in 2011 in the First Division competition and beat the Eastern Province Kings by 40 points in the Final. Willie scored tries in every game and the team delivered quite a few stars at the end of that season.
Willie then played for Griquas and subsequently the Cheetahs Super Rugby team, before he became a Springbok. Today he is known throughout the world for his opportunistic playing style and ability to launch counter-attacks.
Pierre was the catalyst and axis of the Affies side when he was a pupil there. There was never any doubt that he was an exceptional player and a potential match-winner. The high expectations also, unfortunately, put him under tremendous pressure as a young player and athlete, to such an extent that he had an unimpressive Craven Week in Wellington as part of the Blue Bulls Under-18 side and failed to make the SA Schools team in 2003.
I still believed in Pierre's abilities and called his dad, Pierre (snr.), to inform him I was going to invite his son to the Under-19 SA trials, but as a wing. I firmly believed he could be the same calibre as Jonah Lomu.
We immediately started working on his skills - catching, kicking, sidestepping and swerving - and it was a pleasure to work with this young talent. He made the position his own and after the first match in Durban against Argentina (2004), he was the talk of the town.
Unfortunately, he broke his arm in the match against France and that was the end of his tournament. In my post-tournament report, I recommended the Bulls should utilise him as a forward and eventually Pierre became a Springbok.
As is the case with most players, Pierre went through some difficult times, but despite the criticism he still gives his best for his coach and team. He is currently playing in Japan, where his skills will once again develop.
When I started coaching Boland in 2010, the backline coach Louis (Skoppie) Koen saw a great deal of potential Cornal Hendricks. Despite the administrators' doubts regarding Cornal, they still gave him a chance. He was hard-working, dedicated and committed to success.
Although he was a wing at that stage, I picked him as inside centre. Paul Treu, the former BlitzBok coach, then gave Cornal a chance that he grabbed with both hands. He developed into a very special Sevens player and is respected worldwide.
He continued his 15-man career with the Cheetahs and subsequently earned his Springbok colours.
I have only the highest regard for this talented young player who, against all odds, made a success of his life.
So, in conclusion, I just want to say to all the players and coaches with ambition out there not to stop living and chasing their dreams.
Life will always throw you a few curveballs. There will always be backstabbing, dishonesty, a few potholes and some opposition to your progress.
However, don't let that influence you. Keep your eye on the ball and focus on your goals.
YOU CAN DO IT!
To the administrators, coaches (including myself) and individuals who fits the profile - as talked about in the article - I have some advice: It is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are clueless, rather than opening it and proving them right (with credit to Cornelis Jacobus Langenhoven).
By Eugene Eloff