Expanding horizons

RYAN VREDE, in SA Rugby magazine, talks to Jacques Cronjé about his World Cup snub, maturing, and going head-to-head with Sébastien Chabal at Racing Métro.

You were a regular starter with the Bulls and in the Springbok mix when you decided to leave for France in 2007. What prompted the departure?
I wasn’t selected for the World Cup squad and didn’t see any sense in spending another four years trying to prove myself in the Test side with the possibility that I could miss out at the final reckoning again. It was time to make a change. I was still young and didn’t want to go as a player looking for a retirement package. I didn’t want to embarrass my country or myself, so going while I was still reaching my peak made sense.

Did you leave a bitter man given that you were overlooked for the World Cup squad?
I did. I’d been in the squad from 2004 up to the [World Cup] warm-up Test against Namibia, but was then excluded at the expense of a player who had come out of retirement [Bob Skinstad]. But I realised that bitterness would be a counter-productive force in my life. Starting a career in France helped with the healing process in that I didn’t have time to dwell on the disappointment. I’m over that now. I’ve made peace with it.

A conservative farm boy from Klerksdorp who has lived in Pretoria for most of his playing career decides that Biarritz is a good place to spend a couple of years. That surprised me.
It surprised me too, as I hadn’t really ever thought about playing abroad. To say it was a culture shock would be a serious understatement. I’d discussed it with my wife and we decided that it would be a great adventure. We had never heard of Biarritz, let alone Basque country before, and a couple of hours spent on the internet didn’t prepare us for what was in store. Pretoria and Biarritz are like night and day. We packed two bags, took a deep breath and jumped on the plane. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

What was the biggest adaptation?
The language. You don’t get anything done if you can’t hold your own in French. I’m fluent now, but that’s been a long and frustrating process. Also, when we landed I basically joined the team immediately and we were off to Italy to play Treviso. So my wife had to fend for herself in an unfamiliar country, which couldn’t have been easy for her. There were a couple of Saffas at Biarritz when I arrived which made things a little easier, but the first year was a tough one for us.

By all accounts you were loved at Biarritz, but did you love Biarritz?
Yeah, absolutely. Rugby-wise I’ve learnt a lot, but I think the real value of my time at the club was the emotional and social maturity I developed. I’m a farm boy, that’s my world, not the bright lights and casinos of a city like Biarritz. But I realised that my world was very small and I needed to expand my horizons. So we explored the city and the country. In the summer we would take drives down to San Sebastián [in Basque country, Spain], or we’d spend time on the south coast. I’m also a very private person, but I was forced to challenge myself in this regard or my time overseas would be miserable. I’m glad I did because through friendships with the Englishmen, Pacific Islanders, New Zealanders and Frenchmen at the club I learnt so much about different cultures, and that enriches one’s life.

Paris-based Racing Métro came knocking when they were promoted to the Top 14. What was the appeal of joining them?
It was two-fold: it was an excellent offer financially and I liked the idea of being part of a new and exciting journey they were about to start. I loved my time at Biarritz. It’s a rugby city where everyone knows who you are and are emotionally invested in the club. My son spent his first couple of years there, so it holds great memories. In Paris there’s so much competition for people’s attention entertainment-wise that rugby is not as all-consuming. That was the biggest adjustment because I really enjoyed the vibe in Biarritz.

You came to Racing knowing that you’d compete for a place with French cult hero Sébastien Chabal. That took some balls.
I actually didn’t know he would be used as a No 8. He’d played most of his rugby at lock for France and I thought that would be the plan at Racing. But he’s spent most of his time in my preferred position. It wouldn’t have been an issue if he was playing Test rugby at No 8, but that’s not the case. Chabal has god-like status in France so it isn’t surprising that he is preferred. For publicity, there’s no better person than Chabal. I’ve had to make my way at blindside flank, which isn’t a train smash since I’ve played there before, but the coaches know it isn’t my preferred position.

You’re into your fifth year in France. Would you say you’re a more complete player   now compared to when you left South Africa?
No doubt. I grew up here in rugby terms. The conditions make it crucial that you concentrate on the basics of your game and when you hone the basics, everything else tends to fall into place. Technically the focus is on drives and dominance in close quarters, but there’s a flawed perception of France as a crash and bang league. On a sunny day you’ll see play that would compare favourably with the very best games in Super Rugby. That type of game comes naturally to me, so I’m always praying for some sunshine. Sadly, those days are rare. But because of the conditions I’m now better equipped to deal with the 9-6 grind in the wind and mud than I was before I arrived.

Last year Springbok coach Peter de Villiers claimed that players based in the northern hemisphere weren’t conditioned to play at the same pace and intensity of their southern counterparts. What are your thoughts on that, having played Test rugby and in France?
I don’t know what his coaching background is, so I’m not sure if he’s qualified to offer that sort of assessment. But if he has coached in the northern hemisphere he’d know that isn’t the case at all. I think it was just a matter of the players in question having not played Test rugby for a while. They needed to settle back in and if they’d been given more of an opportunity I think you would have seen them perform to the standard they were expected to. To make that sort of judgement based on one game doesn’t make sense.

Could you spend the rest of your life in France?
No, not at all. My brother, Geo, and I have a farm near Lichtenburg in the North West Province and I’ll dive into that business full time once I retire. I love South Africa and I want my kids [Cronjé’s wife is pregnant with their second child] to grow up there. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of ending my career back home either.

– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April issue will be on sale from 16 March.
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