- Ex-Montpellier and Harlequins flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis is back in Cape Town having hung up his boots. He reveals why he called it quits despite being in prime condition.
- He opens up about a life-threatening injury prior to linking up with the Southern Kings in the PRO14 and offers his views on the ongoing travails at the embattled franchise.
- He also explains why Curwin Bosch is Handre Pollard’s closest Test challenger and how the former can return to the Springbok fold since his last match against Wales in 2018.
Sport24 asked: What informed your decision to retire at the age of 30?
Demetri Catrakilis: I have spent so many years tirelessly honing my craft and getting my kicking, passing and movement to where it is at the moment. I feel like it's the best it's ever been, so I'm not retiring because I'm injured or scared of getting injured in the future. For me, rugby became monotonous and I was just emotionally and mentally tired of the everyday profession. I'm so grateful for what I have experienced but I don't feel like rugby is going to challenge me much more and allow me to further develop like I hoped I would. I played rugby professionally for 10 years and before that at school, club and university level. The game has been part of my life for a very long time but I never identified myself exclusively as a rugby player. I tried to acquire different skills and become a well-rounded person. I hope my transition will be smooth and have a plan going forward. I will be working for the family insurance brokerage business but would love to stay involved in rugby in some capacity and get into mentorship or coaching. From what I have experienced, I feel there is a void in terms of the mentorship and management of players. Rugby provided me with an amazing opportunity and I have reached the point where I can help other people and add value to their lives.
Sport24 asked: Would you have considered an offer from the Stormers?
Demetri Catrakilis: I think if Dobbo (John Dobson) had approached me and we had had a conversation about how I could have fitted into the system or how it could have challenged me and made me feel the fire to play again, I would have entertained it. I would have had the discussion and thought about it but I never got a call and it wasn't brought up. It was never really on my mind and now is probably one of the first times I've thought about it. I'm at peace with my decision to stop playing rugby and I wish everyone at the Stormers well. The Stormers are always going to have a great chance of being the best team in South Africa and the majority of the time they actually should be. Dobbo is a brilliant coach and, having spoken to some of the players, they have a very good team environment. He really affords the players the freedom to express themselves. It's very important for a team to allow players to express their individuality. Hopefully their class players can perform to the best of their capabilities. If they can they should no doubt become the best team in South Africa.
Sport24 asked: How did you overcome a life-threatening throat injury?
Demetri Catrakilis: It was very traumatic. Having broken a bone in my throat I was told by the doctors that I probably wouldn't be able to play again. In terms of the incident itself, I remember it very clearly. I sustained a knock to the throat from a shoulder. I went to ground and the longer I stayed down, the more I struggled to breathe. When the doctor came onto the field to treat me, I tried to speak to him and I couldn't. I was rushed off to hospital in an ambulance because I was really battling to breathe. It was a very scary time for me and I wasn't quite sure if I was going to make it or not. At the time of the incident, my wife was actually away with my sister on a holiday in Mallorca. She got the phone call and was on the next flight back to London. Thankfully my dad was at the match and he accompanied me to the hospital. It was a scary time for my whole family and I don't think they wanted me to play after that and neither did I after spending a week in intensive care. In the end, my recovery went well and I was able to breathe freely, speak and eat solids again. By the time it came to playing rugby again, I had to conjure up all the courage I could to step onto the field. It was one of the proudest moments of my life to come back from injury and pull on a rugby jersey.
Sport24 asked: What led to you joining the Southern Kings on loan?
Demetri Catrakilis: I didn't have a great experience with Paul Gustard, who took over as Head of Rugby at Harlequins. I have never expressed this before but I really felt that he actually didn't give me a chance to play. Every player deserves an opportunity to play. I know some guys experience what I went through and it's very unfortunate. I was a committed Harlequins player and I loved the club. Having overcome a traumatic injury, the man never gave me a chance to play and to prove myself to be honest. That was sad and I just hope that no other player has to go through the same experience... I played for the Kings in the PRO14 last year and during my time in Port Elizabeth the franchise seemed to be professionally run. I don't regret signing for the Kings but we didn't end up winning games, which is the main focus of a professional team. Off-field, SA Rugby has taken interim control of the Kings and it looks like the franchise is going to have to start from square one again. I wish the Kings all the best and hope they get their stuff together. The Eastern Cape is a hotbed for black talent. You just have to head to the townships and you'll see that there are sand fields and rugby poles everywhere. The passion is evident and there just needs to be a really good professional team in place. It would not only do wonders for the region but also for South African rugby in the future. Going forward, for the franchise to run effectively the administrators need to be professional and everyone needs to do their jobs off the field so that the players can deliver their on-field duties.
Sport24 asked: Who is the best professional coach you played for?
Demetri Catrakilis: Jake White. I will never forget my first conversation with him when I arrived at Montpellier. He said to me, "Demetri, you are here to express yourself and I know how good you are. Get the ball in your hands and play rugby the way you want to play it." It's the only time I really ever got told to play rugby the way I wanted to play it. For me, that freedom was priceless. I think he might be dogmatic in terms of his approach to practice and how the day runs but I don't feel like he gives players a structure they don't want to play in or feel uncomfortable with. When he backs you, he lets you express yourself the way you want to. I got to experience the good side of Jake during my time at Montpellier and played with a sense of freedom under him. I have spoken to Jake a couple of times since his move to the Bulls. He actually phoned me to ask about some players he was interested in signing. I offered my input and he ended up calling one or two of them. It's refreshing to be open-minded and be able to ask others for advice. I'm pretty sure he's going to do well at the Bulls because he's got a clear plan and he knows what he wants. His match analysis is also unbelievable and he's able to pick out opposition weakness very quickly and knows how to expose it.
Sport24 asked: Who is the closest challenger to Handre Pollard for the Springbok No 10 jersey?
Demetri Catrakilis: Pollard still has the inside lane for the Springboks because he finished the World Cup as the incumbent flyhalf. However, I foresee a lot of competition at flyhalf over the next few years. Curwin Bosch had a brilliant last season and for me is the best kicker in South Africa, especially out of hand. In the past, he has been criticised for his defence but a flyhalf's job is not really to defend. In tight games, you want a No 10 who can control the game, especially with his boot. Bosch still has quite a bit to learn when it comes to creating for others and releasing the line. However, with time he will learn that because he hasn't played much at flyhalf. I think he has all the skills to emulate the likes of Romain Ntamack, Owen Farrell and Richie Mo'unga, who I rate as the best flyhalves in the game today. With a little more practice and understanding of what he needs to focus on before kicks, I believe Bosch can easily become an 85-90% kicker. It's not one size fits all when it comes to kicking as everyone has their own style. As a kicker, it's very important to improve and not just maintain. Once you figure out what you need to work on, kicking becomes pretty simple. Once Bosch achieves that, it's going to be very difficult to keep him away from the Springbok flyhalf berth.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests. Who would they be and why?
Demetri Catrakilis: I recently watched The Last Dance documentary on Netflix and would invite Dennis Rodman. I love how he did whatever he wanted to do and I think we all aspire to that in life. I would also have Brian Lara over. He was my childhood hero and, at the time, he was the best batsman in the world. I loved his individuality and how artistic he was. It was almost as if he was painting a picture when he batted. Another sportsman from the Caribbean, Usain Bolt, would also crack an invite. I think we retired for exactly the same reasons. He still had a few years left in him to win gold medals but did not feel the fire anymore and needed a different challenge in order to grow.