Young at heart

While Stefan Terblanche is 33 years old and hasn’t played for South Africa since the 2003 World Cup, his recent performances for the Sharks have put him back into Bok contention.

terbThis is a story that started with a social visit to a Sharks training session in June 2007, writes Gavin Rich. Stefan Terblanche, on one of his annual trips back to Durban to take a break from his commitments with the Neath-Swansea Ospreys in Wales, was just popping in to see his old mates and say hello.

It led to a second career with the Sharks which, in terms of his input to the team, was not dissimilar to that of Percy Montgomery’s to the Springboks when he returned from Wales in 2004. Montgomery ended up with a World Cup winners’ medal, Terblanche now has a Currie Cup winners’ medal, something he had narrowly missed out on during his previous years with the Sharks.

And who knows, such is the way Terblanche is playing at the moment that he could find himself part of a Springbok team that wins a series against the British & Irish Lions, and there may soon be a Super 14 winners’ medal with the Sharks around his neck. Many critics, including top coaches, rated him the top fullback in the country in last year’s Currie Cup, and Peter de Villiers has admitted that Terblanche came within an ace of being selected for the 2008 end-of-year tour.

Yes, Terblanche is available to resume his Springbok career if selected, and yes, De Villiers will select him if incumbent Conrad Jantjes is injured or loses form, and presumably if Frans Steyn, Terblanche’s Sharks team-mate, is not considered for that position. Terblanche’s international career started the season after the last Lions tour, so he reckons it would be a great way to go out.

Not that Terblanche intends ending his rugby odyssey this year. He is contracted by the Sharks to the end of 2010, and even if he is now 33, he does not see why he should not carry on for another couple of years.

‘I have been extremely fortunate with injuries during my career,’ says Terblanche. ‘I have never been out for longer than six weeks for any injury, and all my injuries have been minor, which helps when it comes to how long you can stay at the top of your game.

‘My attitude has always been that you get a limited time to play the sport you enjoy, so you should make the most of it. If you are still playing as well in your 30s as you were in your 20s, then why not carry on? I intend playing for as long as I feel I still add value.’

Terblanche has been helping the Sharks’ cause for two years now. When Montgomery left for France there was a massive hole to fill, and Sharks coach Dick Muir was scratching his head trying to come up with a replacement. Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford has a great recollection of the fortuitous way the problem was solved.

‘It was at a time when Dick was away on leave and John [Plumtree] and myself were coaching the Currie Cup team. It was in the World Cup season and we were missing several Springboks,’ says Bashford. ‘During training one afternoon we saw this guy pitch up on the side of the field, and someone said “Hey, there’s Stefan”. We went over to have a social chat afterwards, and while we were catching up he mentioned that he would love to play for the Sharks again. We said, “well what about it then, why don’t you?”

‘He was initially sceptical because he didn’t think the Ospreys would approve, as he was under contract. But we got permission from them for him to play for us for six weeks – the length of his break from the northern hemisphere – on condition that we paid his medical insurance in that time. So he was a surprise inclusion for a home game against Western Province in Durban later that week.

‘He did well in that match, he really enjoyed himself, and over the next six weeks he impressed with his work ethic and his ability. Stefan is one of those consummate professionals. He is one of those players you just cannot say anything bad about – there are no negative aspects to his game, or to his attitude.’

Like Montgomery before him, Terblanche, who has played 37 Tests for South Africa, took on the role of mentor and group leader for the younger players.

‘His decision-making on the field is also outstanding, he has an innate feel for the game and knows when to kick, when to run, when to pass,’ says Bashford. ‘He is one of those players who gets better with age, and in terms of motivation, he knows how to get himself up. He has played for over a decade, but I cannot recall a game where he has lacked motivation. As for his strong points, he has everything.’

And almost unbelievably for a player of his age, in this instance ‘everything’ also means that all-important ingredient of pace. Terblanche says he is quicker now than he was when he scored four tries on his debut against Ireland in 1998, and watching him play, that is in no sense a revelatory statement.

‘One of the positives about my time at the Ospreys was the amount of individualised training you do at the clubs in the northern hemisphere. I had never in my career encountered the level of specialisation that I did when I played in Wales. We would be divided into eight or nine different groups according to our position, and then on top of that there was individualised training, where you did exercises specific to you, your strengths and your weaknesses. I did a lot of work on my explosiveness, we did a lot of flat out speed tests, and over time I realised that I had become quicker than ever.

‘I haven’t done a speed test now for about 18 months, but the last time I did do one, when I was 31, I was quicker than at any time of my career.’

The degree of specialisation is one of the things that impressed him when he returned from Wales to play for the Sharks after four years away.

‘A lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same. What has stayed the same is the way the players are given the freedom to enjoy themselves. The culture here is one of “when you put your boots on, that is when you switch on”. I believe it works, and it is one of the big factors in the Sharks’ success story.

‘At the same time, the training has become a lot more specialised, the training methods are smarter. We are doing a lot of work now that is specific to our positions. I think everyone has realised that there is no point in doing a 10km run on a Monday afternoon if it doesn’t help your rugby.’

Mention of that brings back memories of Staaldraad, the infamous boot camp that preceded the 2003 World Cup, which was Terblanche’s swansong with the Springboks.

‘I played one game at that World Cup, against Georgia, but that wasn’t what led me to being disillusioned. It was just an unhappy time for South African rugby … the culture was all wrong. It was all very sad, and the bottom line was that the enjoyment was taken out of playing the game.’

Another disheartening period for Terblanche was the 1999 season, the previous World Cup year, when he became the innocent victim of the tug of war between Bok coach Nick Mallett and politicians who were pushing for the inclusion of Breyton Paulse and Deon Kayser in his place.

After Mallett’s infamous outburst about not being dictated to by politicians following a training session in Cardiff, Sarfu chief executive Rian Oberholzer flew to Wales to lay down the law and made it clear in no uncertain terms to the players that merit was not the sole criteria in selection.

‘I don’t think about that anymore, but I suppose I was a bit upset at the time,’ says Terblanche. ‘If you live in South Africa you have to live by different rules, there are things that are done and sacrifices that you have to make for the greater benefit of society. But you have to look at it from my point of view. I was young, just 23, and had only just come into the team. It was like everything I had worked for all my life was suddenly being taken away from me.

‘At that age you think you are invincible – maybe you have a more selfish attitude to things – but later, when you get older and mature, you realise that someone is going to come and take it all away from you in the end. Inevitably your career is going to wind to a close and there will be someone else who will step into your boots, for whatever reason.

‘It’s not something I’m bitter about – you move on. I am just thankful that I have been able to enjoy the long career that I have.’

No doubt the Sharks are too.

– This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine.