Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ETHIENNE REYNECKE talks about his road to recovery, why concussion is a ticking time bomb in the oval-shaped game and competing in the Cape Town Cycle Tour on Sunday.
Sport24 asked: How are you recovering since suffering a stroke last year?
Ethienne Reynecke: I’m like that old PC of yours that is slow because the ROM is full. I must get the motherboard working at 100% again. I’m suffering from aphasia (a language disorder that affects one’s ability to communicate), which happens after a stroke or head injury. Not being able to speak properly, read or pronounce names or numbers has been challenging. It’s true what they say - you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. But I’m lucky to be alive because I was basically dead three times in 2018. I had a blood clot on the brain, suffered a stroke and was shot at in a robbery at the Spar. The funny thing is that in all my years of rugby, I never even slept over for one night in hospital. However, post-career, I ended up spending almost a month in ICU. It’s been three months now and I have to keep going. I draw inspiration from my daughters Layla and Ave-Mari, who are both 'hoofmeisies' (head girls). My eldest is class leader and has attained academic merit. When I had the stroke it was actually Layla who recognised that something was wrong with me. She said, “I think daddy must go to hospital.” Going from speaking on SuperSport to having my seven-year-old complete my sentences, I have learned that humility comes in many different forms. We all have challenges to overcome and I’m taking it day for day. Through the grace of God, I have started wrestling again, and I am grateful for the small things. You have to keep fighting, as the world doesn’t wait for anybody.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your passion for mixed martial arts?
Ethienne Reynecke: When I was younger, I took an interest in all types of mixed martial arts. I feel I stopped playing rugby too soon and I needed a physical outlet, which MMA provided for me. I have trained under former sumo, judo and powerlifting champion Mark Robinson, who was the world’s strongest man and the first South African to compete in UFC. A number of people were pushing for me to go professional as an MMA fighter (in 2016, Reynecke fought against Claude Laubscher and defeated him by way of submission in an amateur fight) but there isn’t enough money for that in South Africa. Then, at the invitation of WWE officials, I worked out at the Performance Centre in Orlando, Florida in 2017. It was a very good experience and I actually thought it (the deal) was going to happen. From what I understood, they wanted to make a former rugby triple team with myself, Todd Clever and an Australian guy. I met some phenomenal athletes and coaches from 36 different countries at the training centre, but ultimately partaking in WWE isn’t something that came to pass.
Sport24 asked: What have you made from an SA Super Rugby perspective?
Ethienne Reynecke: The one thing I hoped for, and which is happening, is that it’s going much better for the Bulls this season. It’s good to see experienced guys like Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Brits have been brought in and I believe their input on and off-field is invaluable. The Lions, meanwhile, are struggling so far this campaign because they have lost too many experienced players during the off-season. Rugby is like life - you experience ups and downs. While the focus is always on the system rather than the individual, you can’t lose a host of players as well as your head coach and expect to carry on as normal. The likes of young guns Wandisile Simelane and Tyrone Green are exciting players and are set to shine, having been picked by the three-time Super Rugby finalists for this Saturday, but there is not substitute for experience. In South African rugby, it’s always about building and introducing new players. Whereas in Europe, more seasoned veterans are worth their weight in gold and the clubs know how important experienced players are to set the standards for young players to follow and instil the right culture. In South African rugby, instead of looking at what’s wrong with coaches, we bring in new players. The return of Brits proves that the trend can be bucked. Schalk may be 37 years old, but he is very fit and the intellectual capital he brings is immeasurable. He is an asset for the Bulls and Springboks both on and off the field and it’s great he is back contributing to South African rugby. When I was in Pretoria the other night, I caught up with Schalk and Duane, whose return is also significant, and they agreed with me that if hadn’t been as good a start for the Bulls this season, the public would have been negative about their homecoming.
Sport24 asked: Who would be your picks as Springbok World Cup hookers?
Ethienne Reynecke: I believe Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi and Brits will be the three hookers who will head to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with Akker van der Merwe serving as injury cover. Akker is a great player and I feel sorry for him when they don’t give him more games for the Springboks, but in SA rugby everybody has to fight to make it. A player like him can learn a lot from someone like Schalk in terms of being a great team man. If Akker listens to and learns from Schalla, his timeline in terms of growing experience will be exponential… Malcolm is a great player and is regarded as South Africa’s first-choice hooker but, because he is a machine around the field, people often overlook his miss-throws at line-out time. However, if Bongi loses a line-out, owing to the fact that he is not as big a physical presence around the field, he gets criticised by people. In terms of Schalla, his performance against the Lions last weekend coupled with the fact that he outplayed the incumbent Bok hooker was a big tick next to his name. If the Springboks want to win the World Cup in Japan, they will definitely require the experience someone like Brits brings to the team dynamic.
Sport24 asked: What are your thoughts on player welfare in the game?
Ethienne Reynecke: I compiled a document and did a presentation on DNA testing that is applicable to professional sport and how it could be beneficial for athletes to get tested. I then put together a case study using individual players’ genetic predisposition to micro-manage them within a team environment and what deductions could be made in terms of how to manage them using the results of the tests. I worked with Dr Daniel Meyersfeld, who never formally presented it to SARU, but he spoke to Rassie Erasmus and Dr Craig Roberts at the time. However, SARU did not want to pursue it and I believe it was because it can prove problematic for players in terms of contract value. However, it would stop injuries from occurring because they would be able to micro-manage the players with the data. In terms of concussion and letting players retake the field after 10 minutes following a successful HIA, it’s a joke. To offer an analogy, if a boxer gets a TKO, he doesn’t continue the bout. I believe the NFL are following the right path by having independent doctors at each of the games. If a player is ruled to have suffered a head knock, they must sit out for three games before returning to the field of play. In rugby, we need players who suffer from concussion to rest for three weeks without training. I think concussion is a ticking time bomb, but who are the players going to take on? In America, it’s easier for players to sue because there is one governing body, like the NFL. It’s easier, for example, to sue a body like the NFL than World Rugby or SARU. Player welfare is more critical than ever and players, the game’s greatest assets, can longer be treated like pieces of meat.
Sport24 asked: Your outlook ahead of the derby at Loftus Versfeld?
Ethienne Reynecke: Against the Stormers, the Sharks didn’t have enough respect for the ball and committed way too many unforced errors. You can’t just give the ball away to opposition teams and expect not to be punished. To be fair, the Stormers didn’t even play that much rugby and employed a very good kicking game. Against the Lions, the Bulls’ forwards were just too good and too strong. It will be interesting to see how the Sharks pack counters the Bulls’ bruisers. In the backs, Cornal Hendricks’ comeback is a great story. I felt so sorry for Cornal when everybody was too worried (about his heart condition) to take a chance on him. He has trained so hard to get back at the top of the game and it’s great to see the Bulls give him a second chance, having last featured in Super Rugby in 2015. SA rugby fans tend to quickly forget guys when they are out of sight, but Cornal is a machine as a wing. I hope he gets back to his best and stays for a couple of years in the local game.
Sport24 asked: Are you eagerly awaiting the Cape Town Cycle Tour?
Ethienne Reynecke: Yes. It’s great to be in Cape Town ahead of the race and I will be riding for a good cause in this year’s Cape Town Cycle Tour on Sunday. As someone who suffered from Bell's Palsy, I’m familiar with not being able to smile normally. The work that the Smile Foundation does is amazing and you will cry if you see some of the corrective facial restructuring they perform. The work they do on treatable facial anomalies such as cleft lip, cleft palate, nose and ear conditions and facial paralysis is key in affording the kids a confident start in life, which they may not otherwise have had.