IF new signing Jacques Potgieter can do in Durban what he has done in Sydney these past two seasons, the Sharks will be smiling on and off the field next year.
Potgieter is returning to Durban for the 2016 Super Rugby tournament, leaving the Waratahs — and the Bulls for that matter — seriously miffed that the Sharks managed to snaffle the 29-year-old backrower from under their noses.
Potgieter played all his junior rugby for the Sharks (2005-09) and is returning to Durban for family reasons after two years with the Waratahs.
“The Sharks have a very special place in my heart. It is such an honour to join them again and finish what I started in 2005,” he says.
The Bulls had Potgieter on their books for two years (2012-13) before he left to play club rugby in Japan — he is in the middle of a five-year contract with Fukuoka Sanix Blues — and Super Rugby for the Waratahs.
There has been criticism of the Sharks for signing Potgieter rather than promoting their own talent, but the experienced flank with three Test caps will only play Super Rugby and coach Gary Gold can blood emerging youngsters in the Currie Cup later this year.
Gold was singing Potgieter’s praises at the press conference after Saturday’s defeat in Sydney and said he wanted the bearded wonder to have the same impact on the Sharks as he has had on the Waratahs. “He’s a great character, a big ball-carrying threat and a handful from a defensive point of view. He asks a lot of questions. He’s a hard-hitting defender as well,” he said.
Gold added the Sharks would be losing a couple of players after the Rugby World Cup in September. Certainly Potgieter’s signing could not have been timed better and he is a ready-made replacement for the departing Willem Alberts.
“It was an opportunity for Jacques to come home. He’s a young guy and still has aspirations to play the Springboks. The opportunity presented itself and we took it.”
Potgieter played a pivotal role in helping the Waratahs win the Super Rugby title last year and the Bulls immediately tried, but failed, to lure him back for this 2015 season.
His 2014 move to Sydney, orchestrated by Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, proved a masterstroke and Potgieter is hugely popular with his fellow players and his coaches. Numerous reports refer to him as a cult hero in Sydney but it is not clear whether he has gained this status because of his long, flowing hair and Tarzan-like appearance, or because of his destructive, wild approach to the game and opponents.
What is certain is that his decision this month to leave Australia has stunned the Sydney rugby fraternity.
In a Sydney Morning Herald story headlined “NSW Waratahs gutted by loss of Jacques Potgieter”, senior rugby writer Georgina Robinson said the players were stunned at his decision.
“It will leave a unique hole to fill in the profile of the team.”
Robinson wrote that the 115-kg Potgieter was key to the change in the Waratahs’ fortunes.
“The damaging South African back-rower’s abrasive play has been at the forefront of the Waratahs’ emergence and success as a team built on physical dominance first, and razzle dazzle second.
“He is there, galloping from ruck to ruck, shock of dark hair swinging wildly, cleaning up hapless ball-carriers with a blood lust rarely seen in the comparatively genteel Australian game,” she said.
Assistant Daryl Gibson, who will take over from Cheika as the Waratahs coach next season, also spoke of the impact Potgieter had made.
“He’s been an excellent influence on how we like to play the game, with physicality,” Gibson said. “He’s got family reasons to return home, but we did all we could to try to keep him. We saw him as a really important figure to build around next season.”
Potgieter was disappointed a chest injury prevented him testing himself against his future Sharks team-mates on Saturday. He was replaced by veteran flanker Stephen Hoiles who readily conceded that he could not fill Potgieter’s boots.
“Potsy’s a different style of player so I don’t think I can really go in there and try to play his [physical] role,” Hoiles said on the eve of the game.
“There’s probably only a handful of blokes in the world who can do that and I’m not one of them.”
Potgieter has played down the influence he has had on the Waratahs’ physicality and the disregard he has for his own well-being.
“There’s no style — just an ugly guy running around enjoying the game. Whether I’m running the ball or in defence, I just put everything into the game.”
But life has not been all beer and skittles for Potgieter and back in March he was in the headlines for the wrong reason after he admitted to homophobic slurs during the game against the Brumbies in Sydney.
Potgieter admitted to using the word “faggot” in sledging two Brumbies. Coincidentally, the three principal characters involved in the incident were three southern Africans with the Zimbabwean-born David Pocock, the Brumbies and Wallaby flank, making the on-field complaint to South African referee Craig Joubert.
“I’m very sorry for any offence caused by what I said on the field during a heated encounter,” Potgieter said later.
“It was an offhand remark made without thought for the hurt it could cause to those around me.”
Potgieter was fined $20 000 (R237 000) by the Australian Rugby Union — with half suspended — and has to undergo additional education and awareness training. He also visited Australia’s first gay rugby club, the Sydney Convicts, to apologise for his remarks.
Pocock later praised Potgieter for his willingness to confront the problem while Cheika was delighted his form had not suffered.
“Jacques has really reacted well on-field because he could have gone into his shell,” Cheika said. “I just wanted him to be himself. That’s what he’s been since he got here and he’s been a standout performer for us.
“Not only do the players love playing with him, but the fans love watching him, and he’s really good for the game here. He’s always been Jacques Potgieter, every week and that’s all we want him to do.”
And that’s precisely what beleaguered John Smit and coach Gary Gold desperately need, an inspirational player who can light a fire under the Sharks pack while exciting the crowds again.
A cult hero of their very own would go down a treat at King’s Park right now