- Former Emerging Springboks captain Dewald Potgieter talks about his love-hate relationship with rugby and his memories of facing the British & Irish Lions in 2009.
- The 6-Test Springbok, who played for the national side from 2009 to 2010, reveals why his Test stint was short-lived and why he furthered his playing career abroad.
- He also assesses Damian Willemse's decision to stay in Cape Town and whether or not a move to the Bulls under Jake White’s tutelage would have served him better.
Sport24 asked: Why did you have a love-hate relationship with rugby?
Dewald Potgieter: Rugby changed my life and has given me everything I have today. All the things that I love have stemmed from having ventured down that path. I’m unbelievably thankful towards the game but I knew not to love rugby too much because that would have been dangerous. The same people that build you up also break you down. The average South African rugby fan is quite fickle. You feel good when someone lifts you up but I was cautious of the same person that would send me terrible messages on Facebook after a poor game. I don’t think it’s always healthy as a youngster being pushed into that space because your ego gets boosted. The average person that thinks they will become a professional sportsman is really naïve and chances are slim to make it to that top level. To actually be able to make it you have this mixture of naivety and arrogance... I loved playing the 80 minutes on a Saturday but wasn’t particularly fond of training because I wasn’t very athletic and had to work really hard. I had the biggest highs at the start of my career but when it fell apart later on, that particular spell was quite difficult for me to navigate. You build your identity in that space and that’s why many players struggle when they’re done with the sport. You have to really reinvent yourself and find your feet in the real world. In terms of the existential experience, it was probably not quite what I wanted it to be at that point but I knew that it was a means to an end.
Sport24 asked: What are your memories of the 2009 Lions series?
Dewald Potgieter: I captained the Emerging Springboks in 2009 to a 13-13 draw against the mid-week side. That was a fantastic day. I was quite naïve as a 21-year-old playing for the Bulls at the time. I just wanted to start and play. I never dreamed of winning Super Rugby in 2009 and it wasn’t part of the grand plan. After we won the final against the Chiefs, I actually threw my boots into the crowd and only had one pair at the time. I wasn’t even aware that there was an upcoming Emerging Springboks fixture. I said to myself, “Oh s**t, I just threw my boots into the crowd and I’m playing in a week's time!” To be selected as captain was quite daunting because we had some senior players in the mix. I remember before the game Ronan O’Gara and I were at the coin toss. I shook the referee’s hand and then turned to shake O’Gara’s hand and he just looked at me and walked away. I said to myself, “As much as I love a beer, I’m not going to have one with him after the game!” However, Martyn Williams was friendlier and we swapped jerseys after the match. We knew we were up against a pedigreed team and on paper we probably had no right to be in that game. The ridiculous hail that came down at Newlands that day probably levelled it a little bit. We played above ourselves and it ultimately culminated in me being drafted to the Springbok group for the third and final Test.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of the upcoming Lions series?
Dewald Potgieter: I’m not a big fan of the series happening in the UK. There might have been one or two other options at the disposal of the decisions makers. I would definitely postpone the series if possible. I would even suggest that we swap this series out with someone like Australia. We could then have our slot in the next run. The series does a lot for our economy and to lose it should be the last resort. But be that as it may, our players are quite comfortable playing in the UK. You just have to look at how well all the expats are doing there and how easily guys get drafted into those national teams. Our players achieve well on a weekly basis in the Premiership and European competition. There is nothing about that particular setting that should affect us. It will have more to do with the build-up but I see no reason why we wouldn’t be able to go over and walk away with some success.
Sport24 asked: The reasons for a short-lived Springbok career?
Dewald Potgieter: I really enjoyed my time with the Springboks. My first cap in 2009 was after a successful Super Rugby campaign. I never thought I would be even close to emotional when hearing a national anthem but in front of 82 000 people at Croke Park it was quite a rousing experience. Becoming a Springbok at least had something to do with being part of a winning team and there were a few injuries to some of the incumbent players. Towards the end of 2010, we started losing form as a Bulls team and in 2011 we didn’t even make the Super Rugby play-offs. Form had something to do with it and I ended up struggling with injuries after the 2010 season. To play for the Springboks regularly you really need to be able to take care of your body. That is a talent in and of itself to remain fit and be physically predisposed to go from season to season in good shape. My body was always under pressure and, to be effective, I needed to play at a level that took a lot out of me. It took its toll on me physically. Besides injuries, coaches also had an impact on my Springbok career. Heyneke Meyer ended up being coach in 2012. He had a very particular opinion about the loose forwards he wanted to pick and I probably didn’t fit that mould. I was playing 7 for the Bulls at the time and I had conversations with him and he wanted to make me an openside flank. However, that necessitated me playing openside at the Bulls as well but I had a good thing going with the loose trio of myself, Pierre Spies and Deon Stegmann. I wasn’t comfortable asking the coach to have to pick between Deon and I at the time. The moment I realised that was a thing I decided I needed to head overseas. It’s not viable to play rugby in South Africa if you’re not going to regularly represent the Springboks. I made that decision early on in my life and knew the moment I felt I couldn’t be a regular feature for the Springboks was probably time to go overseas and chase another experience.
Sport24 asked: Your thoughts on Damian Willemse’s decision to turn down the Bulls?
Dewald Potgieter: It’s interesting Damian has decided to stay with WP because I think he could probably have done with a move. Everyone always talks about how talented he is but I think for him to have gone to a new space might have changed the narrative about him being a jack-of-all-trades. He may have found a spot at the Bulls under Jake White, who has very specific ideas how he wants to use players. What he did by moving Cornal Hendricks to centre has redefined the trajectory of his career. I think the Bulls move would have benefited Damian and also to turn down a very lucrative deal in the same country is strange to me. If I was his advisor, I probably would have advised him differently. However, he is only 22 and can probably still carve out that same space at WP, change the narrative and become a regular starter for the Springboks... My advice to young players would be to plan for going overseas and spending a few seasons at the tale-end of your career when you’ve maximised your earning potential. Life after rugby is a lot longer than the average playing career and players owe it to themselves to go have that experience and to be able to earn really well. From first-hand experience, I know what the game takes out of you and you really should be able to walk away from it with something decent. I don’t like the narrative of staying and being loyal. It’s a professional sport, so that is all bulls**t! Rugby players really need to take care of themselves first.
Sport24 asked: Who do you rate as the best backrowers today?
Dewald Potgieter: In the modern game, CJ stander has been a pretty great player. I see he has announced his retirement effective from June and it’s something of a surprise because he’s someone who was at the height of his career. He can give you 20 carries a game and make as many tackles. He is a great all-round player and it’s crazy to think that he was deemed too small in South Africa. I have a lot of respect for CJ and we were really close when we were together at the Bulls. I always knew he would prove successful in Ireland and I don’t think that CJ has ever had a bad game in recent years. Meanwhile, what makes Duane Vermeulen outstanding is that he has had massive outputs in the green and gold jersey. It’s not always easy for players to make a step up but Duane’s best performances have been for the Springboks. He has produced game-changing displays and when everyone else falls by the wayside, he protects his channel, runs with vigour, has an undimmed work-rate and if he sees his team is struggling on the deck, he gets involved on that front.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests? Who gets invites?
Dewald Potgieter: I would invite Eddie Vedder the lead singer of Pearl Jam. Notwithstanding the fact that I love his music, Eddie is a remarkable human being. He has transcended from being a rock star to someone who lives a life of meaning and significance. He’s also quite outspoken about social issues. Tiger Woods would be my sporting guest. What I knew about golf growing up was Woods. His story is an interesting one and I would never condemn someone for losing the plot and trying to bring it back. I think it’s all part of being human and he has handled it as well as he could have. I don’t know that there has ever been a competitor like him and I hope he returns from his latest setback. I am really rooting for him to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. I think the Tiger story still has something in it and, from what I’ve heard from people who are close to him, he has a mindset unlike any other. I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a comeback and it would be great to see it happen. To facilitate conversations on a deeper level, I would invite Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari. I love his work and he has an interesting perspective on humans, our history and our future.
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