Saffy’s rugby reunion

ADAM BURNETT, writing in SA Rugby magazine, finds out why South African-born forward Jarrod Saffy turned his back on rugby league to play for the Melbourne Rebels.

The question was about allegiance. Of loyalties and belonging. It struck straight to the heart of the matter, and Jarrod Saffy was unequivocal in his response.

‘Mate, it’s Australia for me now, definitely,’ says Saffy, who was born and raised in Pretoria until he was 14. Ironically, the opening word of his response – delivered in that familiar Australian twang – is the testimony that supports the statement.

‘From when I was about five years old the dream was to play for the Springboks, and when I moved over here, I still had that for a couple of years. But it sort of changed in time to wanting to play for the Wallabies.’

Few in South Africa have probably ever heard of the blond-haired 25-year-old, who played for the St George Illawarra Dragons in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL), before returning to the sport of his youth after signing with new Super Rugby franchise the Melbourne Rebels.

Yet unlike most league forwards who struggle to make the transition with any real success, Saffy’s pedigree looks likely to make him the exception to the rule.

‘I was pretty keen on my rugby growing up,’ he smiles. ‘I mean, the whole country is.’

Saffy played for Natal U13 when his family lived in Durban for a couple of years (before returning to Pretoria), and continued his rugby education at St Joseph’s College in Sydney.

The move to Australia came about, Saffy says, because, ‘Mum and Dad were pretty worried about the crime in Pretoria, and the future for us kids really. The opportunities seemed better in Australia. Crime was getting pretty bad before we left. We didn’t really see much of it, but obviously my parents did and they made the decision to leave.

The youngest of six siblings (four brothers and a sister), Saffy was reluctant to leave his friends, his school, and, simply, his home. The concept of starting over in a foreign environment all the way across the Indian Ocean seemed unappealing and unnecessary.

‘I wasn’t too keen to leave at the start – I was pretty happy growing up there,’ he continues. ‘The transition was tough initially, but once it was made it was fairly easy for me to settle in at school and I started to enjoy myself in Australia pretty quickly. [The countries] are similar in a sporting sense; I spent a lot of my youth in South Africa playing sport after school. It was good for me, I really enjoyed it, but you know, we lived a pretty good life over there – we lived on the good side of the fence. We were lucky in a sense that we weren’t exposed to how bad some of the areas were and how bad people’s lives were in those areas.’

So Saffy had endured a continental shift, yet his foundations remained firmly set in rugby, and at St Joseph’s he was able to continue his development as a flanker or No 8. The tough-tackling teenager represented New South Wales schoolboys before being drafted into the Waratahs academy when he left school.

‘That was really a part-time training thing, where you played club footy and did a bit of extra training with the Waratahs trainers,’ he explains. ‘That was my first year out of school, and from there I got selected to play for the Australian Sevens team. That was an unbelievable experience – a lot of fun. You’d go to two tournaments at a time and then you’d come home for three weeks, and if you kept getting picked, you’d keep going back overseas to play in each tournament. I was lucky, I played in seven tournaments from December 2003 to May 2004 and I loved it. I got to play in places like Hong Kong and Singapore, Dubai, London, France, California; it was a great way to see the world.’

Between his attendance at a prestigious rugby school and his inclusion in the Australian Sevens squad, Saffy was mixing company with some of the best young talent in the country, including current Super 14 players Laurie Weeks (Reds), Luke Burgess and Dean Mumm (both Waratahs).

And while many peers took the traditional rugby route, Saffy opted for an altogether different direction.

‘The first time I actually got approached [to play league] was from the Melbourne Storm,’ he recalls. ‘One of their talent scouts had watched me play for Sydney Uni and they said, “Come down to Melbourne, we’ll give you a trial period and see how you go. And if you like it and we’re happy with you, we’ll offer you a contract”. I was only 19 then, it was my first year out of school, and I still wanted to have a crack at rugby union, so I turned down the offer.’

Yet a year later, having secured a premiership with first-grade side Sydney Uni, Saffy received a second knock on the door. This time around, he was more considered in his response.

‘[West Tigers rugby league coach] Tim Sheens was at our grand final and afterwards he approached my manager,’ Saffy says. ‘He offered me a two-year deal to come to the Tigers. At that stage it was a year on from the first offer and I was still in the Waratahs Academy and I was getting a bit over things – I was 20, and I wasn’t at Super 14 level yet.

‘Half the reason I signed was because I wanted to train full-time. I was still working part-time, just doing retail at a clothes shop, and training part-time, but I wanted to be a full-time athlete and develop myself properly. Rugby league let me do that.

‘Tim even said to me, “Look, even if you don’t like the game, you’ve got two years to train full-time and turn yourself into a better athlete, then you can always go back.” But I really started enjoying league, and was getting contracts, so I stayed. If I hadn’t done that full-time training for two years, I would’ve been a bit behind. Rugby league has a great training culture, we work really hard, so it was good for me to get involved in it.’

This from a man who was unaware even of the game’s existence until he was 14. Saffy spent seasons 2006 and 2007 with the west Sydney club, playing first-grade eight times either as prop or in the second row. Still unsigned towards the end of his tenure with the Tigers, Saffy received an offer from the Dragons that was too good to refuse. Certainly there are no regrets today; in fact, Saffy describes the move to the premiership heavyweights as ‘one of the best decisions I ever made’.

After two impressive seasons with St George, Saffy came under the spotlight of the Melbourne Rebels, who had publicly stated their desire to sign NRL players. With Saffy’s background, the mobile forward seemed the perfect candidate. And so the games began.

‘I got a call from my manager saying they were interested and that’s how it started,’ Saffy says. ‘At first I didn’t know too much about it, because the franchise hadn’t even formed until the start of the year [2010]. I think Stirling Mortlock had signed and I knew of a few other guys who were going to sign that maybe hadn’t come out in the papers, but at first I didn’t know anything about it because I just hadn’t been paying much attention to it.

‘So when I heard they were interested I went and looked into it a bit more, found out about what was going on and started giving it a serious amount of thought – knowing that I was off contract at the Dragons. It seemed like a great opportunity for me to move on to a different chapter in my life. There are other things I want to achieve and certainly going back to South Africa for a few weeks each year to see my brother [Terrence, 34] is appealing.’

For a host of reasons then – including financial security – the move made sense. Yet surely there was one lingering question; when he pulled on the Rebels jersey for the first time, half a decade would have passed since Saffy had played any form of rugby – could he expect to cut it at such an elite level?

‘If I didn’t have a rugby background, I’d never have made the move,’ he says. ‘It’d just be too hard to pick up – the rules would be extremely difficult to learn just like that, especially in the forwards. I guess if you were playing on the wing you’d be OK but I don’t think it would be possible if you’d never played a game to go across and be successful. But I played rugby from the age of six to 20, so hopefully it won’t take me too long to get back into it.’

And there it is. Forget apprehension, Saffy is dealing in ambition. And the ultimate goal – that goal that made a natural switch somewhere in his teenage years – has become a reality once again.

‘I definitely want to aim to play for the Wallabies at some point,’ he says. ‘That’d be my main priority, and the Rebels would be a stepping stone to getting there.’

While we’re in the habit of setting targets, what about the 2011 World Cup?

‘That might be a bit premature,’ he smiles. ‘It’d be nice if it was the year after, but you can only train hard and put your best in, and then you never know what might happen.’

– This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of SA Rugby magazine.