Gunning for the Super Rugby jackpot
July 22, 2014
Jacques Potgieter has been a key cog in the Waratahs' machine this season © Getty Images
It was 45 minutes into the Waratahs' second match of the season against the Reds when Jacques Potgieter felt at home. He left the ANZ Stadium turf with his team 19-5 ahead and received a standing ovation. He had oozed sweat and blood for the Waratahs' cause, and the crowd took him in as one of their own.
"I've loved running out in Sydney," Potgieter told ESPN. "The standout moment for me was leaving the field against the Reds and the standing ovation. It was such a surprise and it was a truly amazing moment for me."
Swapping one Super Rugby franchise for another is a common business when it comes to inter-country moves but moving from the country of your birth to another, while international aspirations are still very much on your radar, is a rare occurrence. In August 2013 Potgieter, then at the Bulls and had three international caps under his belt, was on the verge of joining Saracens. He had visited their St Albans base, chatted to technical adviser Brendan Venter and seemed content with his decision. It would have been a comfortable switch for Potgieter, Saracens have a burgeoning South African contingent and his attritional style of play would have suited the sodden winter tracks in the Aviva Premiership.
Then came a call from an old agent and 30 minutes later Waratahs coach Michael Cheika twisted his arm to swap Pretoria for Sydney. The Waratahs faithful would have had the case of Sarel Pretorius fresh in their mind, a South African who came to Sydney with a big billing but failed to deliver. But Potgieter has been at the other end of the scale. He has switched seamlessly between lock and blindside and has been one of the standout players in Super Rugby this season and he puts much of that praise at Cheika's door.
Cheika is not for everyone as fullback Rob Kearney told Rugby World when speaking about his former coach at Leinster: "We had a very fractured relationship. I always felt he was a little too harsh on me growing up. He did give me some of my first opportunities but I never felt he helped me to develop character wise."
But for Potgieter, he talks passionately of a complete contrast in experience.
"I came so close to signing for Saracens but then Michael phoned me and told me he wanted me to be a part of what he was doing at the Waratahs. Michael's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength. He has made me a better player on and off the field and I have so much respect for Michael.
"Every second week we have a couch session where all the players sit in the team room and two guys will be on the couch and they will talk about situations in the field and life. Two weeks ago we talked about positive thinking and how to get negative thoughts out of your head, like when someone comes into training and says how long the week has been, but positive thinking will say 'okay, but the week's almost over'. So it's getting the mind strong and preparing yourself for what lies ahead.
"That's down to Michael. He brings a calmness to the team and everyone believes in him so much. We have so much respect for him."
Despite interest from his former side the Bulls, Potigieter will honour the last year of his deal in Sydney. You sense Cheika is a huge part of that decision. Potgieter admits he does miss South Africa and still has aspirations to play for the Springboks but the focus is on the now with the Waratahs.
Tevita Kuridrani was knocked unconscious in this tackle © Getty Images
Come Saturday his team will entertain the Brumbies in Sydney in the final four of Super Rugby. To date 33500 tickets for the game have been sold and Potgieter can feel the entire city rallying around the team. It is a special feeling for a side and sport which sometimes struggles to compete with rival sports NRL and AFL.
"I'm walking in malls and people stop me and it's the same in the street. It genuinely feels like the whole of Sydney is behind us. It is great for us as players."
For Potgieter, he dismisses the notion he has become a cult hero in the city - "I'm just a South African boy who loves his rugby. I enjoy putting my body on the line for the team" - but he has been a key cog in their improved performance this season and their miserly defence. He is quick to praise the gigantic Will Skelton and his impressive skill set while also talks passionately about their now absent captain Dave Dennis whose knee injury back in June will see him sidelined for the rest of the year. There is a personal touch to the Waratahs' Super Rugby ambitions.
"It's very sad Dave got that injury. He's a big part of the Waratahs and he's been a big part of the team for many years. To see the disappointment on his face when he got injured was heart-breaking. We want to lift that trophy for him."
They are two games away from achieving that. Whatever the result on Saturday, Potgieter will take a week or so to exhale and then throw himself back into the next challenge, playing for his team in Japan the Fukuoka Sanix Blues. He is signed there until 2017 and will continue to combine his Waratahs duties with hopping over to the Far East. He is loving the world tour.
"It's been a rollercoaster ride for me coming from Japan and moving to Sydney but it's been nice. The boys accepted me and made me part of the team quickly. I've settled in nicely and I'm just enjoying it. I'm keeping myself fresh playing all over the world and I'm loving it."
But first comes the Brumbies. Come Saturday there will be no thoughts of Japan or Springbok aspirations, just the semi-final. "When you look at all the experience and quality we have in our team, I knew we had a chance to do well this season and I'll do everything I can to back them on Saturday."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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