Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Southern Kings captain LIONEL CRONJE talks about his Springbok dream, playing in Japan from next season and previews the Sharks showdown in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: 2016 was a difficult year for you. Did you consider hanging up your boots?
Lionel Cronje: Yes, I seriously considered giving up the game. It was a dark time for me after being released by the Sharks in 2015 and I also had some personal issues I needed to deal with in regards to my family. At that stage, I was actually fed up and not keen to play professional rugby anymore. However, Southern Kings coach Deon Davids rekindled our professional relationship when he got in touch with me and convinced me to give it another crack at the Kings. I attended Queen’s College and regard the Eastern Cape as my hometown. As such, it felt like the perfect fit. After a trying 2016 on a personal and professional front, I realised that I still had plenty to give to rugby and I owed it to myself not to quit the oval game. Deon gave me the kick up the backside I needed at the time, and my passion for rugby has since been revived. When I was in a dark place, I explored the fundamental reasons why I took up rugby in the first place - for the love of the game and to have fun with my friends. Thankfully, I have rediscovered my desire to play rugby and the camaraderie and sense of togetherness I have experienced at the Kings is the reason I first laced up my boots as a schoolboy.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the Kings’ Super Rugby season thus far?
Lionel Cronje: It has been great for us as a group to achieve back-to-back victories against the Waratahs and Rebels. We managed our first ever win on tour and our aim is to build on the momentum we have generated over the last few weeks. In terms of results, we have already bettered the whole of last season with three victories under our belt (last term the Kings only managed to garner two wins from 15 matches). The structures that have been put in place within our system ensure that we have the most professional set-up possible. Subsequently, it allows us as players to develop our skills in order to compete at the highest level. We have shown this term that we possess the strength and conditioning required to play the game at a high tempo for the full 80 minutes. We pride ourselves on an attacking brand of rugby and the goal is to entertain our loyal supporters at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Deon has most definitely had a positive impact on the playing group and he affords us the freedom to express ourselves. As a player, I have always thrived on attack and the way that we are playing at the moment has really enhanced that area of my game.
Sport24 asked: You’ve been in fine form. What would national selection mean to you?
Lionel Cronje: I have definitely taken the road less travelled and if Springbok selection ever came to pass for me, I would probably burst into tears. I don’t think that any South African boy takes up rugby only to one day participate in Super Rugby. There is always that dream to attain higher honours and I am no different. It’s still an ambition of mine to play for the Springboks and if that ever had to occur it would definitely be a dream come true. I believe that playing for the Boks is an attainable goal. This season, I have shown more consistency, which probably wasn’t always the case in the past. The race for the N0 10 jersey at national level is hotly contested, but the individuals in the running are players whom I have competed against throughout my career. It’s humbling to hear (Sharks backline coach) Sean Everitt say that he feels I’m in the form of my life. However, the bottom line is that I’m still trying to put the perfect game together and there are a number of areas of play I can still improve upon. Game management, defence and kicking are vital areas of flyhalf play and I’m continually honing those elements of my craft in training and match situations. I’m pleased with my progress, but the truth of the matter is that I haven’t yet achieved the highest level of rugby in SA.
Sport24 asked: Is Curwin Bosch ready for the big time or must he be treated with caution?
Lionel Cronje: In South Africa, it’s very difficult to come through at a young age, but Curwin has well and truly taken his chance in Super Rugby and run with it. He boasts an excellent all-round game and has the mental fortitude to match. I feel as though it’s a cop-out to say that young players shouldn’t be rushed into the senior setup. The reality is that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Curwin has shown that he has the capabilities to play at the highest level and I can’t see why he wouldn’t be able to make the step up for the Springboks because he has already excelled for the Sharks at Super Rugby level. While he will play for the Junior Springboks rather than for the senior national side against France, it’s obvious he has something really special and is definitely one for the future.
Sport24 asked: How have you dealt with the Super Rugby axe hanging over your heads?
Lionel Cronje: In my opinion, we only had two options to consider. We could either lie down and let the negativity of the looming Super Rugby axe overwhelm us, or we could play a positive brand of rugby and fight tirelessly for each other. We opted for the latter approach and realise we can only control what occurs on the field. We could have proved the critics right by waving the white flag. However, we are a proud group of players and are fighting for our professional careers. As players, we can’t control what happens beyond the four white lines, but we can give our all until the end of the season. People will then see that we are moving in the right direction. I feel strongly that Super Rugby should remain in the Eastern Cape region because the production line of talent is undeniable. To lose our rights to a Super Rugby franchise would be especially devastating to youngsters in the province. Not having local heroes, like Makazole Mapimpi, to look up to would be a very sad day. Mapimpi is an extraordinary case of rugby player. The 26-year-old, who was born in the township of Mdantsane, has taken his opportunity with both hands. If he is selected for the Boks it would prove that development in the area is alive and there are opportunities for players in the Eastern Cape.
Sport24 asked: Why did you decide to sign for Toyota Verblitz in Japan from next season?
Lionel Cronje: The Japanese move offers job security and financial stability with the uncertainty surrounding the Southern Kings’ participation in Super Rugby from next season. Japan will prove a refreshing, new experience for me and my wife. It will be great to learn about a different culture and rugby environment. Jake White has been appointed as head coach at the club from next season. I have previously worked with Jake at the Brumbies and Sharks and I’m looking forward to linking up with him again and improving my all-round game. And I would really love to return to South Africa to play Super Rugby next year - during the Top League’s off-season - if an opportunity presents itself.
Sport24 asked: The Boks have drawn the All Blacks in RWC 2019 pool play. Your take?
Lionel Cronje: I think it’s exciting and the question I would ask is: Why wouldn’t you want to play against New Zealand in the pool stages? All Rugby World Cup fixtures are important so, for me, it’s actually irrelevant when you play against them. If there is any international team that is capable of beating the All Blacks, I believe it’s the Springboks. Irrespective of where we are at the moment in terms of world rankings or the state our rugby is in, we always raise our levels against our fiercest foe. The pool match will be a clash of enormous magnitude and the prospect of playing against New Zealand should never be seen as a negative. In 2007, we were drawn in the same pool as defending champions England and we beat them in the group stage and went on to win the World Cup trophy.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the much-anticipated rematch with the Sharks?
Lionel Cronje: We are yet to beat a South African side in our Super Rugby history, so that serves as our next challenge. We have an opportunity to end that losing sequence against the Sharks in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. It wouldn’t be natural if I didn’t want to put my best foot forward and show my qualities against my former employers. We lost narrowly to the Sharks in Durban in March and we are excited to have another crack at them. We conceded two yellow cards against them on that occasion and are aware that our discipline will have to be top-notch. Furthermore, the decisions in and around the breakdown will be crucial, and if we can match the Sharks upfront then I believe the encounter will be won by the team who does the most with their ball possession and puts the other team under pressure. Getting a win over a fellow South African side is important because it will give us even more credibility than we earned from beating two Australian sides. There has been a big drive to fill our stadium this Saturday and I urge all of our supporters to come out in their numbers and cheer us on. We’ve had a productive week of training and my message to my teammates is to have fun and not forget what has got us this far - playing for each other and really enjoying the game. We are not putting any pressure on ourselves and plan to play an exciting style of rugby.
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