RYAN VREDE chats to Robert and Sias Ebersohn about life, loyalty and the Springboks.
Sias is 35 seconds older. Is that reflected in the dynamic between the two of you?
Robert: Sias would tell you it is, and that he is older but most of the time you’d never say it. He’s not really responsible, although he is growing up now.
Sias: What?! I’m far more responsible than he is. The reason Robert could never be a flyhalf is that he just wouldn’t be able to deal with all that responsibility. You only need to spend a short time with us to know I’m the older of the two. He has no respect for his elders.
Do you share a close bond in the way that’s expected of twins?
Robert: No. Certainly we have a strong friendship, but we don’t spend all our time together. We have very different personalities and hobbies. Sias is far more outgoing and enjoys spending time hunting, fishing or tending to his cows on our family’s smallholding [just outside Bloemfontein]. We have a quiet understanding. Nothing will come between us, but we never give off that vibe.
Sias: He’s my best friend, but not in the way that you’ve become used to best friends being. I think our parents’ divorce strengthened that bond. We were 11 or 12 and we only had each other. We couldn’t speak openly to our parents about what was happening. It was painful for both of us, but the good that emerged was that we strengthened our relationship.
Are you competitive with each other?
Robert: Look, we support each other in our careers, but off the field it can get a bit heated. I’m the king on the PlayStation.
Sias: But I’m the owner of the PlayStation, so I determine when he’s played enough, which is usually when he gets on a bit of a roll.
What are your earliest rugby memories?
Sias: My dad [former Western Province and Free State midfielder Tiaan Ebersohn] took us to Free State and Springbok matches in Bloemfontein. I’ll never forget that time because it stirred the dream to play in front of big crowds. We also spent a lot of time watching my dad play club rugby, so we were always surrounded by the game.
Robert: Ja, we grew up in a rugby culture that only deepened when we were sent to Grey Bloem. In primary school after practice we’d often train again with my dad at his club, Collegians. On match days they’d order two Cokes for us and two cases of beer for themselves and we’d be part of the celebrations and banter in the change room after the match. We even showered with the team! So we’ve been immersed in the game from an early age.
Why has Grey Bloem been the dominant force in South African schools rugby for years?
Robert: That’s tough because there has to be more to it than good players, right? I think it has a lot to do with the pressure associated with the legacy of excellence at the school. For example, when I play for the Cheetahs I feel like I’m playing for the next win. When I played for Grey I always felt I was playing with the expectation of 150 years of success. You don’t want to be the team that is remembered for not meeting expectations, so you push yourself and your team-mates to ensure you don’t fail.
Sias: I’ve never known a Grey team to want to simply do well in a season. The challenge for us was to go unbeaten. That’s what we’d define as success. That plays a big part in Grey’s dominance.
Robert, you played sevens for two seasons after finishing school. How did that benefit you?
Robert: I believe it will add at least three years to my career. If I’d gone straight into Currie Cup or Super Rugby there’s no doubt as a 19-year-old who is significantly smaller than most of his opponents, I would have been susceptible to serious injury, particularly since I’d probably have played without a break because we don’t have the player resources the bigger unions do. Sevens allowed me to get used to mismatches of that variety, and also to develop ways to maximise my strengths to counter what I lack in size.
South African coaches seem to be losing their fascination with big backline players and we’ve seen the emergence of gifted diminutive men like Pat Lambie, Juan de Jongh, Gio Aplon and yourselves. Your thoughts?
Robert: We accepted at an early age that we weren’t going to get as big as some of the backs at senior level. Our parents are of average height, so we had a genetic ceiling. We’ve had to focus a lot more on improving our core skills and rugby intelligence, especially in contact, to make up for
what we lack.
Sias: Thankfully we’ve worked with some good coaches who’ve taught us how to get around our physical limitations. When we were with the SA U20s [Bulls defence coach] John McFarland worked with us on being smarter in contact, on building momentum into the tackle situation, and ball retention and presentation. That has stood us in good stead now.
Have you ever been tempted to bulk up using steroids?
Robert: Never. Our parents weren’t even keen for us to use normal protein shakes or supplements. We were always taught that a solid work ethic is key to your success. That said, I understand the pressure some schoolboys are under to get an edge. I’ve seen parents who put so much pressure on them to get a professional contract that you see why they would turn to performance enhancers. I’m not condoning it, but it’s a reality.
It was noticeable that the Cheetahs’ form graph curved steadily upwards when Sias started playing regularly at pivot.
Robert: He’s had to refine his game to make it at Super Rugby level, but I’ve always believed he had the ability to. I think his personality suits the Cheetahs. My mother always said that I think first then do, where Sias does first then thinks about the consequences of his actions. We needed that free spirit at flyhalf and it’s paid dividends. I love playing with him. He knows me so well and that in turn has benefits for the team.
Sias: I’ve had to be patient, and it was frustrating to see Robert get his chance before me. But the coaches at the Cheetahs felt my kicking game wasn’t up to scratch so I spent time working with [former Springbok flyhalf] Louis Koen in Cape Town and [Cheetahs backline coach] Hawies Fourie. Now I feel like I’ve got a rounded game without any obvious weaknesses. In retrospect I’m thankful the Cheetahs coaches didn’t throw me into Super Rugby while I had those flaws. I could easily have bombed and then been discarded. We’ve seen that happen to too many talented players in South Africa. I’m still not expressing myself as fully as I’d like. My strengths are my running game and my distribution – I think I have a better pass than most flyhalves in Super Rugby – and when I’m more confident I can use those strengths to create space and time for those on my outside.
Why did you guys stay loyal to the Cheetahs despite better offers [Robert was coveted by the Sharks and Bulls, while the Sharks and Force were after Sias]?
Robert: Sias and I want to be seen as a package, in the same way Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis have branded themselves. If we move it would have to be as a flyhalf-centre package. The Cheetahs offered us that opportunity and we are still young, so it made sense to stay. Sure, we thought about the fact that we could have won the Currie Cup with the Sharks [in 2010], but the Cheetahs are moving in the right direction and that is comforting.
Sias: It wasn’t a simple decision to stay. I wasn’t playing regularly at the time and the Force offered me the chance to do so. But time is on our side and if we are playing good rugby we’ll always be in demand. So the decision to stay isn’t detrimental to our careers.
Your contracts with the Cheetahs expire after the Currie Cup. Is it a foregone conclusion that you will re-sign or are you contemplating other offers?
Robert: We haven’t been offered new deals as yet, but neither have we decided that we will definitely stay. I’m not one of those players who’ll commit to a union for life. I haven’t even played 50 matches for the Cheetahs yet, so I don’t share an unbreakable connection with them. Our goal is to play for the Springboks and if we believe we can make that step up while playing for the Cheetahs then we’ll stay. Our immediate future is probably in Bloemfontein, but if in a couple of years we’re still playing well but still struggling to break into the Bok side then we’ll have to make a move. [Stormers centre] Juan de Jongh already has an edge on me because he has had the benefit of working with Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie every day, getting advice from them and stealing with his eyes. For the most part I’ve had to teach myself or learn from them by watching or playing against them. I don’t have their ears every day at training and in match situations. With no disrespect intended to the players and coaching staff at the Cheetahs, they’ve been good to me, but being surrounded by players who could take my game to the next level and make me look good is appealing.
– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine. The August issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 27 July.