EXCLUSIVE: Ex-WP captain Chris van Zyl chats to Sport24

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Chris van Zyl (Gallo)
Chris van Zyl (Gallo)
  • Former Western Province skipper Chris van Zyl talks about retiring on his own terms and how the players have dealt with off-field dramas at the historic union.
  • The lock forward, who played 42 times for the Stormers, assesses South Africa’s injury crisis in the second row and explains why he’s a big fan of Franco Mostert.
  • The qualified chartered accountant also casts an eye towards the British & Irish Lions series and rejects the notion that the Springboks will whitewash the visitors. 

Sport24 asked: Why did you decide to call time on your playing career?

Chris van Zyl: It was something I had been plotting and planning for a number of months. It was so important for me to end on my own terms. That definition will differ for every athlete but mine was to not finish my last contract and to be able to say, “Thank you, I’ve had enough and I’m ready and looking forward to what lies ahead next.” The actual reason why I did another year under John Dobson was the prospect of captaining Western Province against the British & Irish Lions. It would have been a massive privilege but, with more and more uncertainty and the ever-changing environment owing to Covid-19, I didn’t want to be hanging around. I wanted to be excited about what’s next and leave on those terms rather than hang around and hope about what may or may not happen… I have been overwhelmed with messages of support. I am quite surprised actually because I was blown away by the number and calibre of people that reached out and said congratulations. It was really something I didn’t expect. The feedback I got was really encouraging.

Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your journey in Cape Town?

Chris van Zyl: I am so grateful for every opportunity I got given. Dobbo (Dobson) took a liking to me and backed me for which I am grateful. If I had to sum up my time in Cape Town with Province and the Stormers, I definitely wouldn’t think about the unwanted player list, liquidation and all the media reports. I would rather reflect on the way Dobbo and Fleckie (Robbie Fleck) were able to create an environment that was strictly professional but in which people could be themselves authentically and enjoy each other’s company. We were able to still have fun while producing a professional product. When I arrived at Western Province in 2015, I felt like I found a place that combined the best things about rugby. It definitely was a second chance for me in Cape Town... I worked extremely hard to become a professional rugby player and I was broken-hearted when I left Johannesburg in 2014 because my contract wasn’t renewed with the Lions. I wanted to get the opportunity to prove myself more and more but by that stage I think they had already decided I wasn’t the future. When I returned to Cape Town I said I basically wasn’t interested in playing any club rugby. I was strictly professional and wanted to focus on my career. That’s when Dobbo got hold of me. The saddest part is that I didn’t get to have a full Super Rugby season under Dobbo. I genuinely believe we would have done something special in 2020 but the pandemic had other plans.

Sport24 asked: How did the team deal with the off-field dramas?

Chris van Zyl: Dobbo and the management team did such a good job of shielding us from all that noise. So unless you are actively going out and reading the newspapers and digital feeds, whether it’s right or wrong, I think you are actually okay. The management were very careful that we focused on what took place at the HPC in Bellville, Newlands and Cape Town Stadium because those are the aspects we could control. The message from the leadership group was to always focus on the controllables. Overall in South Africa, I think a shift needs to be made for treating the rugby world as more of a business. It’s going to be interesting to see how the relationship between the Sharks and MVM plays out because it’s something new. It was definitely sad to see the back of Siya Kolisi (when he signed for the Durban-based franchise in February). In the last year-and-a-half, Siya and I became really close on a personal level. From a leadership point of view, we respected each other equally. He is such an inspirational character as well as a warrior on the field and leaned on me for guidance and advice at some stages. We had a great on-field relationship from that point of view as well. We knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and that combination worked quite nicely in the games that we played together. Often being a great leader is to follow with conviction. Having always captained throughout my career under Dobbo and then being in a situation where I wasn’t anymore, I was conscious to ensure I followed with conviction as that is very powerful in a team environment.

Sport24 asked: Your take on the PRO16 series being in the balance?

Chris van Zyl: Everyone has been through a tough time from a mental health point of view but rugby players also haven’t had it easy. The uncertainty regarding the PRO16 isn’t great and my hope is that the competition still goes ahead.  Many players in South Africa would have been biting the bullet for the final preparation series and now be really hopeful for some international exposure. It would be tough on players and coaches alike to have another local competition. Our players want to test themselves up north and the South African public have an appetite for something different. If the series doesn’t happen, local players and coaches will be more open to the idea of heading abroad. How much longer can you keep these guys holding on for something that might not take place? I foresee more players making the move like Elton Jantjies... From the beginning of 2018, serious overseas offers worth considering came in for my services. I had a short stint at Saracens which was great but having started an accountancy and bookkeeping business I was trying to put as much time into it. I knew that if I agreed on a long-term overseas deal, I would probably lose touch completely and I simply wasn’t willing to do that at the cost of all I’d put in to get this company up and running.

Sport24 asked: Who do you rate as the top locks in the game today?

Chris van Zyl: I have always been a massive Franco Mostert fan. I got to play with him at the Lions and I see a lot of myself in him. He is not your tallest or heaviest lock but boasts a work-rate second to none. He is also a very solid line-out caller. I’m also a big supporter of Lood de Jager, who knows how to run a line-out. He is an expert in that field and it showed during the World Cup. It would be silly not to also mention Eben Etzebeth. His presence, physicality and ability to single-handedly chuck people around is something that is the envy of most teams. On an international front, Brodie Retallick, who I got to play against on a number of occasions, stands out as such a dynamic player. If you look at his body shape and composition you wouldn’t necessarily think he would be a dominant ball-carrier but he covers it all. He’s a phenomenal player with a broad skill-set and he has stood out.

Sport24 asked: What do you make of South Africa’s injury jinx at lock?

Chris van Zyl: From what I understand, Eben shouldn’t be out for too long (with a broken finger) but Lood might be a bit longer. Meanwhile, RG Snyman is racing to try and be back. However, I wouldn’t say there is a massive shortage of quality South African locks. Of course the aforementioned trio are quality players in their own right but there is proper quality still available. If none of the triumvirate got back in time to face the British & Irish Lions, there would be locks capable of filling that void. Putting my selector’s hat on, Mostert would probably take the number 5 position and then at four lock I would look at Jason Jenkins, Salmaan Moerat and JD Schickerling. For me, the latter is an outstanding lock forward. Out of all the locks I played with over the course of my career, I must have shared the field most with JD. When he gets going and runs with the ball he is very difficult to stop. In terms of Pieter-Steph du Toit, I think he has proved he is the best player in the world on the flank. Of course it’s nice to know that you can put him at No.5 and he will do a great job. When I started with the team, he was playing 5 at the Stormers but his move to N0.7 has evidently been world class.

Sport24 asked: Any regrets having never worn the green and gold jersey?

Chris van Zyl: I can honestly say that the players who were always ahead of me thoroughly deserved their positions. It’s difficult to think that there were players there who didn’t deserve to wear the jersey. The fact that I’m not two metres tall probably wasn’t ideal and we have always had great lock stocks in the country, so it’s how it went for me. As from a form point of view, I was probably closest to the Springbok conversation during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. In 2018, we went unbeaten at Province in the Currie Cup. I didn’t end up playing for the national team but leading the blue-and-white hoops and winning the Currie Cup are dreams that I accomplished and I’m really proud of that.

Sport24 asked: Will the British & Irish Lions be considered the underdogs?

Chris van Zyl: I don’t believe that for a moment. I think any British & Irish Lions team that is put out is always going to be a proper outfit. From a South African perspective, we have our own inherent challenges owing to the fact that we haven’t played as a Springbok team since the 2019 World Cup final. I think it will be great if South Africa can get themselves into a situation where they could play more games in the build-up - I’m not sure in what form or nature - but as Springboks. It’s not ideal that we are going to go into a British & Irish Lions series without playing a number of games as a Bok unit. With all the factors taken into consideration, when the series goes ahead I think it’s going to be a mammoth occasion. Even if there are no crowds in attendance - we have to understand what’s going on in the world and where the rugby industry currently is - I have no doubt that the series will be an absolute spectacle to watch. I by no means believe it’s going to be a walkover for either side.

Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests. Who would you invite and why?

Chris van Zyl: From a South African business point of view, I would love to hear Johann Rupert’s insights on both the past and future. From a sporting perspective, I would dig the opportunity to have Tiger Woods over. He has got a great story to tell because there have been some interesting times. It was a pity Tiger wasn’t able to play in the Masters this year, as it is the pinnacle of the golf calendar, but it was great for the game of golf to see that someone a little bit different and outside of the USA - Hideki Matsuyama - won.  I don’t know whether Tiger will win another major but he’s definitely going to make a comeback. I can’t imagine him fading into the night. I think he is going to rage and fight. Meanwhile, I love my music and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones would crack the guest list. He is a proper rockstar with plenty of stories to share. I can reveal that I’ve got two guitars but that doesn’t mean I can play them! It’s something I can now put a bit more time and energy into.

Previous chats:

Wim Visser

Morgan Newman

Dewald Potgieter

Daniel Leo

Tera Mtembu

Heyneke Meyer

Ernst Joubert

Gurthro Steenkamp

Dylan des Fountain

Andries Strauss

Juandre Kruger

Ryan Kankowski

Josh Strauss

Ross Skeate

Brad Barritt

Casey Laulala

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