Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Springbok and current Ulsterman JEAN DEYSEL talks about the revamped PRO14, the 30-Test eligibility rule and previews the Test in Cape Town on Saturday:
Sport24 asked: You inked a two-year deal with Ulster. What motivated your move north?
Jean Deysel: My move to Ireland came about towards the end of last season. Munster’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, phoned me to join the club on a three-month deal to provide injury cover. I jumped at the opportunity because I was looking for a fresh challenge, and I’m grateful to the Sharks for granting me an early release from my contract. (Deysel was named in the Sharks' 45-man Super Rugby squad for 2017, but didn’t feature in any of the Durban franchise’s first three matches). I really enjoy the rugby up north, and I was fortunate enough that Ulster approached me to sign a two-year deal with them once my time with Munster came to an end. Ulster boasts a number of South Africans and more specifically former Sharks players, which made my off-field transition much easier. Make no mistake, it was sad to leave South Africa but it always helps when you have fellow South Africans that can come over and share a braai with you. I think I will always have that feeling (of unfinished business in South African rugby). However, I believe there is a time and place for everything, and it felt like the right moment for me to spread my wings and get a taste of what European rugby is like. It has proved a great experience so far in Belfast for me and my young family.
Sport24 asked: Your take on SA Rugby’s 30-Test eligibility rule for overseas-based players?
Jean Deysel: I believe the 30-cap rule is a great concept but, to be honest, I didn’t give that a second thought when I made the move across to Ireland. I’m 32 years old and I don’t think the national selectors will look at me because the Boks are building for the next Rugby World Cup with a younger playing group. There will definitely be regrets about not being able to play for the Springboks again because as a South African rugby player you always want to be in the mix and play for your country. However, the 30-cap rule makes sense because young players must be encouraged to ply their trade within South African borders. I truly believe that the national selectors are on the right path, and the majority of the Bok group needs to play together in South Africa in order to harness team cohesion and build a solid culture. For me, it’s about building the team environment and it’s so much easier when everyone is based in the same country and can attend monthly training and team-building camps. However, there will still be value in picking the odd overseas-based player such as Francois Louw. From what I’ve heard, Francois is doing tremendously with the young players in the Springbok squad. The Bath-based loose forward boasts a bucket load of experience, with 53-Test caps under his belt and he has played the oval game in both the northern and southern hemispheres. The experience players like Louw offer is invaluable, but it’s all about finding the right blend of youth and experience and foreign and locally-based players. At the moment, Louw is the only overseas-based player in the Springbok squad, which I believe sends a strong message to South African players: Home-based players will be given first preference in terms of national selection. It’s fair enough because Allister Coetzee needs to work with a group of players on a consistent basis to forge team identity and make the boys understand what it means to be a Springbok, with your boots on and off.
Sport24 asked: What are your initial impressions of the expanded PR014 competition?
Jean Deysel: I believe the PRO14 has been brilliant for both the original 12 teams and the two South African sides that have entered the fray this season. For my money, the Cheetahs and Kings will benefit massively from the rugby up north. By all accounts, the play is not as quick and high-paced as Super Rugby mainly because of the weather conditions and the pitches. However, over time the South African teams will learn to adapt and will aim to gain supremacy at the set-piece. The Cheetahs have been doing very well at home, but the Kings are still finding their feet in the competition (The Port Elizabeth-based franchise are without a win after five matches). The way the Cheetahs have been playing in the last few games, they are definitely play-off contenders. The men from Bloemfontein can only go from strength to strength because this is their maiden season of PR014 rugby. They entered the competition straight out of Super Rugby and had minimal time to prepare. I believe the learnings they will gain this term will be invaluable and they can take it forth to next season and will prove even more formidable opponents. The ambition to win the PRO14 is the goal for any team that starts the competition and we are no different at Ulster. We came up short against Zebre in our last match, but I believe you learn the most out of the matches you lose. We took learnings out of that game and tackle Connacht in a local derby on Friday. We will take it game for game but, at the end of the day, we would definitely like to put some silverware in the cupboard.
Sport24 asked: What is your message to Springbok supporters who are really impatient?
Jean Deysel: I think the Springbok team is really building something special, although it’s not always the way people will see it. Unlike the coaches, the public are more results than performance-driven. Brendan Venter’s comments on Twitter post-match against the Wallabies have generated plenty of debate and some have been critical of his point of view. However, Brendan is involved on the inside, so he sees the everyday improvements and not just the weekend’s result. I think his tweet which read: “If winning is all you see, stop watching” was more a general comment than a team-specific one. I believe we must look at the bigger picture and be patient as supporters in terms of the process. The nature of the game means that it is results-driven and that’s what people will judge you on. However, it hurts to read the negative stuff that is being written about the Springboks of late. As a player you never take to the field to lose or draw. I can promise you that the Springbok players want to win every Test, but this is a young group that needs to play together and evolve as a collective. I think the Springboks have a plan for themselves and, the more they can impose their game strategy, the better they’ll get at it. I definitely think the Boks will go from strength to strength.
Sport24 asked: Are you unequivocally behind South Africa’s 2023 Rugby World Cup bid?
Jean Deysel: I may be playing in Ireland, but I would definitely like to see my home country awarded the 2023 Rugby World Cup (ahead of France and Ireland). By that stage, I would have hung up my playing boots and will be living back in South Africa. I’m fully behind the South African bid and I would love to take my boy to a game or two. It’s been a while since South Africa last hosted a Rugby World Cup - back in 1995 - and it would be tremendous for the country at large. When South Africa hosted the event 22 years ago, the World Cup-winning Springboks side brought the country together. I get goose bumps thinking back to that memorable time in our rugby history and sport has a great way of uniting South Africans. If we are afforded the honour of hosting the global showpiece, I believe many of the ills in the country will be forgotten because a massive sporting event has the power to unite the people of the rainbow nation. If World Rugby awards South Africa the hosting rights it would be massive for us not just from a rugby point of view, but for the Republic as a whole.
Sport24 asked: Your thoughts ahead of the 95th Test between the All Blacks and Boks?
Jean Deysel: I think we will see a different Springbok side at Newlands to the one that lost 57-0 to the All Blacks in Albany three weeks ago. To be honest, I believe we have a massive chance to beat the All Blacks because they are definitely not unbeatable. I reckon that will be the message within the Springbok camp this week. I really do believe the Boks are building something tremendous that can serve them well for the future. The All Blacks are a tough team to oppose but, as any rugby player will attest to, the tougher the game and the competition, the better because they are the ones you like to play in to test yourself. It’s a big Test coming up for South Africa in Cape Town on Saturday and I really think the Boks will do well. Some have suggested that the rivalry between the old foes has diminished owing to recent lopsided results in the All Blacks’ favour. However, I believe the rivalry between the All Blacks and Springboks will never diminish. The history and tradition of the rivalry is so deep and grounded that I feel it will never be forgotten or taken for granted. I was fortunate enough to have faced the All Blacks on one occasion - in 2011 - and while the result didn’t go our way on the day, (New Zealand beat South Africa 40-7 in Wellington) it was definitely a career highlight coming up against the All Blacks. When you start following rugby, you see the Haka and just want to be part of it from a South African perspective. I always wanted to stand in front of the Haka, and on the day I relished the moment. It felt like the Test against the All Blacks flew past, but I really enjoyed playing against the men in black. In my book, the All Blacks are the top-ranked team in world rugby because they get everything right. Many people only see the All Blacks when they have got their boots on and that is what they will judge them on. The All Blacks are not only the best team in the world on the pitch, but off the field as well - from carrying their bags to cleaning the change room. They have instilled a stellar team culture, with everyone working towards the common good.