Jacques Potgieter talks to SIMON BORCHARDT from SArugbymag.co.za about winning Super Rugby with the Waratahs, why he didn’t return to the Bulls, playing in Japan, and his Bok ambitions.
How did your move to the Waratahs come about?
I wasn’t getting a lot of game time at the Bulls, so I was looking at different options. I went to Saracens last July to meet their coaches and look at their facilities and was about to join them. Then [Waratahs] coach Michael Cheika phoned me. He said he liked my style of rugby and needed someone like me in his team. Michael is a straight shooter. I liked what I heard, so I signed with the Waratahs.
How does the Waratahs’ culture compare to the Bulls’?
Every team has different players and therefore a different culture that they believe in. The Bulls have a very strong culture, as everyone knows, and the Waratahs do now too, with Michael there. He has given the players so much self-belief and we play for each other, our family and friends. The players had to make a family tree and they took our parents’ names and put them inside the big text of ‘Defend for them’ [on a poster]. For Michael, it’s all about playing for the people who really love you, and not just for the fans.
You said recently that Cheika is ‘the best coach I’ve ever had, and ever will have’. What is the difference between his coaching philosophy and that of Frans Ludeke at the Bulls?
Every coach has a different mindset and approach to the game. The Bulls have a structure and game plan they believe in and it’s won them three Super Rugby titles, so there’s clearly nothing wrong with it. Michael, though, believes in going out there and having a go. There is a game plan that we work from but we also play the situation and have fun. He believes you play your best rugby when you’re having fun and letting the ball do the work. The Bulls are more game-plan focused, with every player knowing what’s expected of him.
You were used mainly as a battering ram at the Bulls, but have shown your full range of skills at the Waratahs. How did that evolution take place?
The nice thing about playing under Michael is that he gives you the freedom to express yourself on the field and take the opportunities that present themselves. There is a big focus on ball skills at the Waratahs and it’s OK if you make a few mistakes as long as you go out there and gave it your all. Michael used the example of playing rugby in the park when you were a little boy – everyone wanted to play with ball in hand and that’s when you had the most fun.
How did you feel about playing No 4 lock and blindside flank this season, and what’s your preferred position?
My preferred position is blindside flank, but Michael wanted me to play lock in some matches and that’s fine. It’s all about what’s best for the team.
Why do you think you became such a cult hero among the Waratahs fans?
It surprised me how quickly they accepted me. When I spoke to some of the fans about it, they said they appreciated the way I put my body on the line for the Waratahs jersey. They respected the fact that I wanted to come to Sydney, as a foreigner, and make a difference.
What did winning Super Rugby mean to you?
It’s a highlight of my career and I couldn’t have asked for more in my first season with the Waratahs. It’s great to be rewarded for all the hard work you put in, from pre-season training in October to the final in August. All that sweat and blood paid off.
What did the Waratahs do on ‘Mad Monday’ when you celebrated your title success?
The name says it all! Mad Monday is just for the players – there are no coaches or management members. First, we had a dress-up party. The theme was Fifa World Cup, so everyone got a team – I got Argentina. The Waratahs hired a yacht and we celebrated on it for four hours, before going to a private function for the players. We then had a four-hour court session, so it was crazy!
Where in Sydney did you live and what did you enjoy about the city?
Sydney is such a beautiful city with the Opera House, Tower Bridge and all the white beaches. I stayed in Bellevue Hill, about 500m away from Bondi Beach, so every day after training the boys got together for a coffee and then a dip in the sea. Luckily, Sydney’s winters don’t get too cold.
When the Bulls approached you during the season about a possible move back to Pretoria, they admitted ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it’. Why did you decide to stay in Sydney?
Yes, the Bulls were interested in bringing me back and I considered it because it would have allowed me to be close to my family again. But then, after talking to Michael and knowing that something special was happening at the Waratahs, I realised it would be stupid for me to leave. Michael has helped to make me a better player and a better person.
Would you like to return to Pretoria sometime in the future?
I haven’t really thought about it. I still have another two years with the Waratahs so I’ll finish that and then take it from there. But I’ll never rule out a move back to the Bulls.
How did you end up signing for the Sanix Blues in Japan?
To make up for a budget shortfall, the Bulls asked me if I would be interested in going to Japan for six months instead of playing in the Currie Cup. My agent started looking in Japan and we quickly got a couple of offers. I didn’t think twice about going.
How does the standard of rugby in the Japanese Top League compare to the Currie Cup?
It’s quite similar. The Japanese have put a lot of time and money into their clubs and the standard is improving all the time. Japan’s national team is also starting to do well, which shows the quality of the Top League is good.
How many games did you play in the last Top League season?
I played eight games. Teams are only allowed two foreigners on the field at once, so I started every match and was taken off at half-time. Playing in Japan helps to keep the body fresh.
Was it difficult to adjust to the Japanese culture and learn the language?
I took Japanese lessons in Pretoria before going to Japan, so I knew the basics, like how to introduce myself. I’m allergic to shellfish so I can’t eat anything like that while I’m there but I love other Japanese food and their meat in particular. I buy chops and steak for a braai and invite all the Japanese boys to my house two or three times a week. They really enjoy that.
What language is spoken during training and analysis sessions?
The coaches speak Japanese and the translators then tell us what’s going on.
When does your Sanix contract come to an end?
I have signed until the end of 2017. The nice thing about my contract is that they will release me if I am selected to play for the Springboks.
Were you disappointed not to be selected for the Boks’ Rugby Championship squad after your Super Rugby success?
Yes, definitely. I want to pull that green and gold jersey over my head again. I think I’m ready for it this time; I don’t think I was when I first played for the Springboks in 2012. I’m playing the best rugby of my career. That’s all I can do, and all I can continue to do. Beyond that, I can’t control anything else. There’s a drive and a passion to be better every week and to convince the selectors that I’m good enough. If I continue to improve and I continue to knock on the door, sooner or later they’re going to have to answer.