Lionel Cronje chats to Sport24
Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Southern Kings captain LIONEL CRONJE talks about his Springbok dream, playing in Japan from next season and previews the Sharks showdown in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: 2016
was a difficult year for you. Did you consider hanging up your boots?
Lionel Cronje: Yes,
I seriously considered giving up the game. It was a dark time for me after
being released by the Sharks in 2015 and I also had some personal issues I needed
to deal with in regards to my family. At that stage, I was actually fed up and
not keen to play professional rugby anymore. However, Southern Kings coach Deon
Davids rekindled our professional relationship when he got in touch with me and
convinced me to give it another crack at the Kings. I attended Queen’s College
and regard the Eastern Cape as my hometown. As such, it felt like the perfect
fit. After a trying 2016 on a personal and professional front, I realised that
I still had plenty to give to rugby and I owed it to myself not to quit the oval
game. Deon gave me the kick up the backside I needed at the time, and my
passion for rugby has since been revived. When I was in a dark place, I explored
the fundamental reasons why I took up rugby in the first place - for the love
of the game and to have fun with my friends. Thankfully, I have rediscovered my
desire to play rugby and the camaraderie and sense of togetherness I have
experienced at the Kings is the reason I first laced up my boots as a
Sport24 asked: How
would you assess the Kings’ Super Rugby season thus far?
Lionel Cronje: It
has been great for us as a group to achieve back-to-back victories against the Waratahs
and Rebels. We managed our first ever win on tour and our aim is to build on the
momentum we have generated over the last few weeks. In terms of results, we
have already bettered the whole of last season with three victories under our
belt (last term the Kings only managed to garner two wins from 15 matches). The
structures that have been put in place within our system ensure that we have
the most professional set-up possible. Subsequently, it allows us as players to
develop our skills in order to compete at the highest level. We have shown this
term that we possess the strength and conditioning required to play the game at
a high tempo for the full 80 minutes. We pride ourselves on an attacking brand
of rugby and the goal is to entertain our loyal supporters at Nelson Mandela
Bay Stadium. Deon has most definitely had a positive impact on the playing group
and he affords us the freedom to express ourselves. As a player, I have always
thrived on attack and the way that we are playing at the moment has really
enhanced that area of my game.
Sport24 asked: You’ve
been in fine form. What would national selection mean to you?
Lionel Cronje: I
have definitely taken the road less travelled and if Springbok selection ever
came to pass for me, I would probably burst into tears. I don’t think that any
South African boy takes up rugby only to one day participate in Super Rugby.
There is always that dream to attain higher honours and I am no different. It’s
still an ambition of mine to play for the Springboks and if that ever had to
occur it would definitely be a dream come true. I believe that playing for the Boks
is an attainable goal. This season, I have shown more consistency, which probably
wasn’t always the case in the past. The race for the N0 10 jersey at national
level is hotly contested, but the individuals in the running are players whom I
have competed against throughout my career. It’s humbling to hear (Sharks
backline coach) Sean Everitt say that he feels I’m in the form of my life.
However, the bottom line is that I’m still trying to put the perfect game
together and there are a number of areas of play I can still improve upon. Game
management, defence and kicking are vital areas of flyhalf play and I’m continually
honing those elements of my craft in training and match situations. I’m pleased
with my progress, but the truth of the matter is that I haven’t yet achieved
the highest level of rugby in SA.
Sport24 asked: Is
Curwin Bosch ready for the big time or must he be treated with caution?
Lionel Cronje: In
South Africa, it’s very difficult to come through at a young age, but Curwin
has well and truly taken his chance in Super Rugby and run with it. He boasts
an excellent all-round game and has the mental fortitude to match. I feel as
though it’s a cop-out to say that young players shouldn’t be rushed into the
senior setup. The reality is that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Curwin
has shown that he has the capabilities to play at the highest level and I can’t
see why he wouldn’t be able to make the step up for the Springboks because he
has already excelled for the Sharks at Super Rugby level. While he will play
for the Junior Springboks rather than for the senior national side against
France, it’s obvious he has something really special and is definitely one for
Sport24 asked: How
have you dealt with the Super Rugby axe hanging over your heads?
Lionel Cronje: In
my opinion, we only had two options to consider. We could either lie down and
let the negativity of the looming Super Rugby axe overwhelm us, or we could
play a positive brand of rugby and fight tirelessly for each other. We opted
for the latter approach and realise we can only control what occurs on the field.
We could have proved the critics right by waving the white flag. However, we
are a proud group of players and are fighting for our professional careers. As
players, we can’t control what happens beyond the four white lines, but we can
give our all until the end of the season. People will then see that we are
moving in the right direction. I feel strongly that Super Rugby should remain
in the Eastern Cape region because the production line of talent is undeniable.
To lose our rights to a Super Rugby franchise would be especially devastating
to youngsters in the province. Not having local heroes, like Makazole Mapimpi,
to look up to would be a very sad day. Mapimpi is an extraordinary case of
rugby player. The 26-year-old, who was born in the township of Mdantsane, has
taken his opportunity with both hands. If he is selected for the Boks it would
prove that development in the area is alive and there are opportunities for
players in the Eastern Cape.
Sport24 asked: Why
did you decide to sign for Toyota Verblitz in Japan from next season?
Lionel Cronje: The
Japanese move offers job security and financial stability with the uncertainty
surrounding the Southern Kings’ participation in Super Rugby from next season. Japan
will prove a refreshing, new experience for me and my wife. It will be great to
learn about a different culture and rugby environment. Jake White has been
appointed as head coach at the club from next season. I have previously worked
with Jake at the Brumbies and Sharks and I’m looking forward to linking up with
him again and improving my all-round game. And I would really love to return to
South Africa to play Super Rugby next year - during the Top League’s off-season - if an opportunity presents itself.
Sport24 asked: The
Boks have drawn the All Blacks in RWC 2019 pool play. Your take?
Lionel Cronje: I
think it’s exciting and the question I would ask is: Why wouldn’t you want to
play against New Zealand in the pool stages? All Rugby World Cup fixtures are
important so, for me, it’s actually irrelevant when you play against them. If
there is any international team that is capable of beating the All Blacks, I
believe it’s the Springboks. Irrespective of where we are at the moment in
terms of world rankings or the state our rugby is in, we always raise our
levels against our fiercest foe. The pool match will be a clash of enormous
magnitude and the prospect of playing against New Zealand should never be seen
as a negative. In 2007, we were drawn in the same pool as defending champions England
and we beat them in the group stage and went on to win the World Cup trophy.
Sport24 asked: Your
outlook ahead of the much-anticipated rematch with the Sharks?
Lionel Cronje: We
are yet to beat a South African side in our Super Rugby history, so that serves
as our next challenge. We have an opportunity to end that losing sequence
against the Sharks in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. It wouldn’t be natural if I
didn’t want to put my best foot forward and show my qualities against my former
employers. We lost narrowly to the Sharks in Durban in March and we are excited
to have another crack at them. We conceded two yellow cards against them on
that occasion and are aware that our discipline will have to be top-notch.
Furthermore, the decisions in and around the breakdown will be crucial, and if
we can match the Sharks upfront then I believe the encounter will be won by the
team who does the most with their ball possession and puts the other team under
pressure. Getting a win over a fellow South African side is important because
it will give us even more credibility than we earned from beating two Australian
sides. There has been a big drive to fill our stadium this Saturday and I urge
all of our supporters to come out in their numbers and cheer us on. We’ve had a
productive week of training and my message to my teammates is to have fun and not
forget what has got us this far - playing for each other and really enjoying
the game. We are not putting any pressure on ourselves and plan to play an exciting
style of rugby.
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