SA’s brain gain

A year ago, Luke Titus was a little-known rugby league player, the son of South African political refugees, playing in the Australian junior divisions. Now he has a Stormers contract and big plans.

When Audrey and Clement Titus left South Africa in the midst of apartheid, irony would have been the last thing on their minds. Could two coloured South Africans emigrating to Australia ever have dreamed of having a boy so bent on becoming a Springbok?

Luke Titus may have grown up in Sydney, but his mom Audrey hails from Elsie’s River and his dad Clement is from Belhar. In 1981 they had had enough – Australia and a new life beckoned. Luke was born in 1987 and although ma or pa weren’t his first words South Africa – and the Boks – still had a place in the family’s hearts.

‘Mum’s a big rugby fan. If the TV was on and it was time for the rugby, Mum would change the channel. She always went for the Boks.’

Titus now lives in Durbanville with his aunt and uncle, close to where he trains with the Western Province team. However, convenience doesn’t factor into Titus’s remarkable tale of how he secured a one-year senior contract with the Stormers. A year ago, he was a little-known rugby league player, fighting for recognition in the junior division of the New South Wales club competition. It’s hard to believe a union side such as the Stormers, a franchise blessed with an abundance of local talent, would cast the net as far as Sydney for an inexperienced, born-and-bred Australian.

They didn’t. Athletic ability is the primary reason he now calls Cape Town home, but he also has his own initiative, determination and, admittedly, a bit of luck to thank for this golden opportunity. Titus cut a DVD featuring highlights of his tenure at the Cronulla Sharks, the club where he played for the U20s. He mailed copies to every South African and Australian Super 14 franchise, as well as to several league clubs in Europe.

‘I didn’t have an agent,’ Titus shrugs when asked why he didn’t receive offers at a younger age. ‘I was playing year in, year out and never getting picked up. When I was 19, I finally got into the next division and played for the Sharks for two years. I did have a few talks with some agents, but I never got picked up. If you’re not physically big, most of them don’t want anything to do with you.’

Patience was required, not to mention the ability to deal with rejection. Most teams didn’t respond and a number of DVDs were returned to sender. Then Rassie Erasmus, fresh into the Stormers’ head coach position, phoned.

‘When Rassie called me, I didn’t believe it. I thought it was one of my mates playing a trick on me, but then I knew they wouldn’t be able to put on that Afrikaans accent. Back home in Australia, we didn’t even know Rassie was moving to the Stormers. I’d sent him the DVD while he was still at Free State. The funny thing is, I was speaking to Mum on the phone the other day and she told me about the DVD I’d sent to the Stormers last year. It had been sent back to Sydney.’

Rassie wasn’t the only one to spot something in Titus. Lions coach Eugene Eloff also phoned – one day too late.

‘Eugene came back to me saying he was interested, but he contacted me the day after Rassie got hold of me. I would have gone to the Lions but I’m happy to be in Cape Town because I’ve got some family here.’

Erasmus is reluctant to talk up Titus’s talent, which is understandable considering Western Province’s first practice match against Boland was the first time he saw him in action.

‘Apart from the DVD he sent through, I hadn’t seen him play live,’ says Erasmus.

‘It wasn’t a case of scouting him; we don’t have those systems in place in Australia. When I first spoke to him, I told him I’d be willing to give him the same chance as everybody else.

‘I’d be lying if I started talking him up now, saying we’ve invested in a big star for the future. It’s clear he has talent, and he has come back to South Africa to have a fair go. I haven’t made him any promises otherwise. It will be tough.’

Titus had such faith in his ability he paid his own way and arrived in South Africa in November. Despite securing a senior one-year contract with the Stormers, he requested to start with the Western Province Vodacom Cup side. This was not for lack of confidence, he merely wanted to prove to Erasmus and the Cape he’s worthy of a place in the senior team.

‘It’s one of those things. I don’t want it to look bad; I want to start from the bottom and work my way up,’ he says. ‘Because I’ve moved from Australia, people may be expecting big things from me straightaway. I just want to have a normal start and not have that kind of pressure on me. I just want to play rugby.’

At 1.80m and 90kg, Titus isn’t the biggest outside centre around but he makes up for that with typical Aussie rugby league toughness. Players who lack in size in South Africa usually have to compensate with extraordinary skill as well as unnatural speed and power and Titus demonstrated this when he came off the bench in WP’s 55-14 demolition of Boland. As he received more ball he began to show more authority, the final Deon Fourie try conjured by a smart step, surge and pinpoint offload that would have had his heroes Matt Giteau and Gavin Henson tipping their caps.

It’s still early days, but the injury that ruled Stormers centre Corné Uys out of the Super 14 could see Titus make the step up sooner than expected.

‘I’d love to play for the Stormers,’ he says, ‘but I don’t want to go around saying I need to be playing for the Stormers. When I’m ready, I’m ready. It’s really up to Rassie.’

Titus is not the first foreigner to represent a local franchise, but could he really be singing the national anthem with that unmistakable Aussie twang several years down the line even though he’s never watched a live Bok game?

‘I’d love to play for the Springboks. Obviously making the Stormers first team is my goal at the moment, but yeah to play for the Boks is definitely my ambition.’

Titus may not have been raised with the Boks on a pedestal, well, at least not in the fanatical South African sense. He may not have come through the Craven Week ranks and blown opposition away in any junior SA provincial competitions and there may be questions about his physical ability but there’s no doubting his commitment.

He’s made a significant breakthrough by attracting the attention of a big franchise, a feat that is so often dependent on crafty management deals struck by agents, by a combination of guts and guile. It’s a dream position to be in.

‘My parents left South Africa because they wanted to make sure my younger brother and I would have better opportunities. I suppose it is ironic that I’m back here, but they’re very happy that I’m now getting my chance.’

By Jon Cardinelli

– This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine. The new issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 12 March.