Sarel spreads his wings

GARETH DUNCAN talks to Griquas scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius about his move to the Waratahs, being snubbed by the Springboks and why the Currie Cup format should stay the same.

Tell us about your background.
I was born and bred in Bloemfontein and attended Laerskool and Höerskool Reitz. I went to the U18 Academy Week with the Griffons in 2003 and was then selected for an invitational Central Tigers side that competed at Craven Week. I made the Free State U21 team in 2005. After a televised game against the Leopards, then Valke coach John Williams signed me for the 2006 season. When he left the Valke in 2007, a clause in my contract allowed me to leave too and I made my way to Kimberley to play for Griquas. I also featured for the Royal XV against the British & Irish Lions in 2009, which was the best experience in my career so far. We were leading, but they managed to overtake us in the final 10 minutes of the match.

How do you cope with being one of the smallest players in Super Rugby [1.75m, 75kg]?
It helps that I’m a scrumhalf, so size isn’t a major thing. Over the years, I’ve learnt many tricks and shortcuts that have helped me perform well at Super Rugby level and I’ve really thrived on attack [Pretorius was joint top try-scorer in 2011 with nine tries], especially at the Cheetahs. The Cheetahs’ coaches give the players that attacking freedom, which is why we’ve managed to score so many great team tries in the past two seasons.

What aspects of your game do you want to work on and improve?
Defence is a bit of a concern [he missed the most tackles in Super Rugby this season]. I’ll be putting in a lot of work with my coaches and experts to get that part of my game up to scratch. I’ve also been working hard on my kicking game.

Why did you decide to join the Waratahs next season?
I’ve always wanted to play overseas, but I wanted to continue playing Super Rugby too because it’s the best competition in the world. So when the Waratahs made me a two-year offer, I saw it as the best step forward for me. The deal started when I came off the bench to play on the wing in the Cheetahs’ 23-3 win in Sydney; my agent got a call after that game. It was a difficult decision to leave South Africa, but I’m just spreading my wings to gain some overseas experience. I’m looking forward to playing alongside the likes of Drew Mitchell and Adam Ashley-Cooper. I will still play for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup over the two years.

How disappointed were you not to be included in the Springbok Tri-Nations squad after you’d made the 51-man World Cup planning squad?
It’s human to be disappointed as it’s every South African player’s dream to play for the Springboks. But obviously the coach has his plan going into the World Cup and I’ve accepted that I’m not part of it. Should a Bok call-up come my way again, I’ll grab it with both hands.

What do you think of the quality of South African scrumhalves and who’s the toughest scrumhalf you’ve faced?
I think the country is blessed with a variety of top-class scrummies. You have Fourie du Preez, who’s one of the best No 9s to ever play the game and he still has a lot to offer the Springboks. He’s one of my role models, and it will be a big loss when he leaves for Japan at the end of the season. Luckily there are talented youngsters coming through and performing well, like Jano Vermaak and Francois Hougaard. Jano displays the type of attacking game I enjoy playing, while Francois is very physical. The toughest No 9 I’ve faced is Will Genia, who’s probably the top scrumhalf in Super Rugby. He has a great pass and does the basics very well. He adds an extra dimension to his team’s attack with quick pace and the ability to snipe a gap.

Should the Kings play Super Rugby in 2013 at the expense of the Cheetahs or Lions?
The Kings need to earn their place in Super Rugby by first qualifying for the Currie Cup Premier Division. At this moment, they’re still playing in the First Division, while the Cheetahs and Lions have Super Rugby experience. We saw how the Rebels fared this season, and I think the Kings will struggle just like they did.

Should the Currie Cup Premier Division be cut to six teams?
If this happens it will be difficult for the smaller unions as there’ll be four or five teams fighting desperately for that sixth spot for financial reasons. Sponsors want their teams playing in the top flight, so if teams drop down to the First Division, they’ll lose major sponsorships and income. And this shouldn’t be done on short notice. Saru needs to give all teams at least two years’ notice before an important decision like that is made. But why should there be a change? The Currie Cup is running fine the way it is.

What are Griquas’ goals for the season?
Obviously the aim of all teams is to win the Currie Cup. But Griquas really struggle with depth as injuries are a formality during the season. A realistic goal is a top-five finish, which is achievable because we had 13 guys playing for the Cheetahs in Super Rugby this season and that experience will help a lot. Last year, we only had about five players in the Cheetahs squad.

How will Griquas cope without former coach Dawie Theron?
Dawie will be a big loss. He played over 100 games for the union and spent a number of years here as a coach. He played a big part in the system that saw the team do well in recent years. But new coach Abré Minnie worked closely with Dawie over the several past campaigns and he’ll probably continue to build on to the foundation that Dawie laid. So no progress should be lost.

Does the union struggle with key players, like Zane Kirchner and Bjorn Basson, leaving each season?
This is why eight unions should be competing in the Premier Division of the Currie Cup. It provides players with the platform to get some decent exposure. There’s talk of Riaan Viljoen going to Western Province, which will be a good move in his career as he’ll improve by playing alongside Springboks. Yes, it will be difficult for Griquas losing a few key players, but they still have a core group of guys in the squad each season and there are talented youngsters who come through the system which keeps them competitive.

How will the Boks do at the World Cup?
They have the players to win the tournament. There’s no substitute for experience, and this Bok side has plenty of it.

What are your future plans?
Right now, I’m just focusing on giving my all in my last season at Griquas. I’ve played my best rugby for them. Then I want to make a success of my time with the Waratahs in Super Rugby and the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup next season. I’m keen on playing in Europe one day, but we’ll see what happens when the time comes.

– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine. The September issue – a 260-page World Cup special – will be on sale from 24 August.