Interview: Potgieter’s unexpected 50
When he packed his bags for France a few years ago Jacques-Louis Potgieter thought his Super Rugby days were over.
Yet in a twist he never thought possible, he earned an unexpected 50th Super Rugby cap when the Bulls faced the Western Force in Perth on Saturday.
Prior to his European expedition Potgieter had a run with the Sharks, Bulls and Cheetahs although only the aforementioned had played him in his position of preference.
Europe was supposed to be his last stint and the player was more than happy to return home and pursue his business interests.
Then he received a call that would put his retirement from the game on ice.
The last time Loftus rang in need of his services, Potgieter had just helped the Cheetahs into an unlikely Currie Cup semi-final and knew that at his new team he would be the back-up should the Morne Steyn brake down.
“I had to wait 10 weeks for this opportunity so I’m very happy to get a chance,” Potgieter said in 2010 when he finally featured in a Bulls starting line-up.
In what was effectively a Bok team, he would probably have packed-down at prop at the time, so he was rather content playing at outside centre.
When the long lost son who matriculated a block away from Bulls headquarters returned this time, the wait was only two weeks, he was picked to play at his favourite position and the impact he made was immediate.
“When I left the last time I thought that was the end of my Super Rugby career and when I returned I realised that this will probably be my last chance, a chance I was not going to let slip through my fingers,” Potgieter told SARugby.com.
“I think the hunger I have now is something I haven’t experienced before. When you watch South African rugby from a different county it brings things into perspective.
“The level of determination you have to reach the top also changes when you watch from abroad.”
Potgieter’s change in appetite for the game can be attributed to the time he spent at Bayonne and later Dux.
At the French clubs, Potgieter would discover, the preparation ahead of matches are done at an intensity similar to match situations while five-course meals are as common as "koffie en biskuit" is in South African households.
The result of the hours he spent diving around on mud drenched surfaces in Europe was that Potgieter’s defensive game showed drastic improvement.
When he arrived in Pretoria, he reunited with his good friend and kicking coach Vlok Cilliers, who he had worked with for hours on end during 2010 without lining up a single kick.
Together they made a few adjustments and the rest, as they say, is history.
While his skills from both hand and tee may be exemplary, it is in the defensive stakes where the pivot has provided a level of resilience few of his predecessors possessed. For the Bulls this refined skill could be seen as a bonus they weren’t counting on when they first phones him.
After all, a Bulls fly-half is supposed to lay back in the pocket with the flankers responsible for taking down the big guys, right?
“I think the timing of my return was perfect. I didn’t get rushed into the first game and that freed-up some time with Vlok. It really made a huge difference,” said Potgieter.
While others have had mixed success this season, Potgieter has been one of the most consistent fly-halves in the Southern Hemisphere thus far.
The guidance he gives the respective scrum-halves has been a revelation this season and it has become apparent that although he takes his job as the team’s chief decision maker very seriously, he is also enjoying every minute between the four lines.
“In France they were quick to identify some of my weaknesses, so I had to reflect on that and improve wherever it was possible. I think that introspection was important as it also made me realise what my strengths are and what I need to do to play to those strengths,” Potgieter added.
Europe, the 29-year-old fly-half would later admit, opened his eyes on more than one level.
During his time in the north Potgieter made the time to experience different cultures and visited places he would probably never have seen in his life.
Quite aptly, he was at the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Like many Roman Catholic pilgrims, he visited the majestic city of Lourdes where miraculous healings are believed to take place.
And on another weekend trip with his wife and kids, he even managed to watch a game at the world famous Camp Nou.
“I have to admit… I’m not the world’s biggest soccer fan, but the hotel in Barcelona where we were staying gave us some amazing seats and I actually still have a video clip on my phone of Lionel Messi scoring a goal right in front of me.
“It was incredible.”
Another highlight of his stint included a visit of the Fêtes de Bayonne which is a festival where the party goes on for no less than five days.
“The friendships and memories we have from those two years are priceless.
“When you drive through those European countries and experience the different cultures, it is almost like a new world opens up for you.
“It also makes you realise just how amazing South Africa is.”
Potgieter knew he had to come home at some stage, even if it was only to continue contributing to his family-owned IT Business.
Yes this Bulls player doesn’t have time to play golf with his mates as his days off are spent at the grindstone.
“When I’m not at training, or putting in some extra hours with Vlok, you will find me at the office.”
Those office hours could be cut down even further should Potgieter get a call-up to the national team ahead of the June internationals window.
“Like all players I would love to represent my country, but honestly, I don’t really think about that.”
“To me it is more a case of ensuring I give my best for the Bulls every week. The rest will take care of itself.”
If Heyneke Meyer had to select a starting fly-half tomorrow, Potgieter, based on current form, should be very near the top of the Bok coach’s list.
And to think there was a stage when he thought his Super Rugby career was over.
By Michael Mentz