'Guys might be introverted but they find their feet. It’s rewarding'
Safe to say, life has treated Ernst Joubert well since he hung up the boots in 2015 following his half-dozen seasons at Saracens. The South African looked in rude health the other week when welcoming RugbyPass in through a side entrance at the SAS Rugby Institute, the Stellenbosch workplace he commutes to on the snazzy red Vespa positioned just yards from where he cheerily said hello.
Not that he has turned hipster at the age of 42. More the practicalities of life in a university town where parking is in short supply given its olde worlde layout. “It’s my means of travel if it isn’t raining,” he chuckled, decked in a t-shirt and shorts on a sunny day. “There is not a lot of parking, the town is quite small, so it’s the easiest way to just jump about.”
It’s been that way since 2017. Joubert had studied at Stellenbosch before turning pro in the mid-noughties with the Lions in Jo’burg, but he didn’t envisage the so-called City of Oaks 50kms east of Cape Town would become home for his young family in the rugby afterlife.
“I’ve got three daughters,” explained Joubert, sitting down by the sports academy’s recovery pool to chitter-chatter for half an hour before shooting off to catch his eldest daughter’s schools netball match. “My first two were born in the UK so they are turning 10 and nine and my youngest, who was born in South Africa, is turning five. We have got a fantastic life here – and all the cousins and grandparents are close by.”
The Stellenbosch job offer arrived at just the perfect time for Joubert to make a clean post-Saracens break. “I had a fantastic few seasons but then injuries crept in. You fall out of favour and want to blame everyone, but the fact is your confidence isn’t what it can be, you are almost 35 and you have got to be honest with yourself.
We had ourselves a @Saracens reunion on the final day of our SAS Rugby Coaches Seminar @bradbarritt Andy Edwards @ErnstJoubert and Neil de Kock. pic.twitter.com/em2bPWcO8e
— Stellenbosch Academy of Sport (@sas_hp) December 9, 2022
“A lot of guys hang in there because they don’t have an opportunity to finish. I had an opportunity and I thought, ‘Look, I had a great time, but it’s time to call it a day. I did it on my terms which is the reason I don’t have regret. I have never stood next to a field and thought, ‘I wish I could be on the field’. I felt I had my fair share and had a good time.
“I loved it but I finished on my terms, which was fantastic. I’m still training. That’s the nice thing about working in a sports facility, you can still pop into the gym, and I get on the bike and get in the mountains.”
Saracens and the post-playing planning they do with players was key to the seamless transition. “I was fortunate Saracens had that plan. We were owned by Remgro, who also own this facility, and it has got shares in the Blue Bulls now. Back in the day with Edwards Griffiths, we worked on a final contract that when I finished playing my last two years, I had a transition year at Remgro and then an opportunity at SAS became available.
“The academy itself has been here for 10 years but we are basically like a sports hotel,” he continued, referencing how Benetton stayed there for their week-long build-up to a recent URC clash with the Stormers. “We get various different sports codes and inside the academy, we have got a rugby division.
“We had a blank page to do whatever we felt and decided to do an international academy, which was my baby. I did the marketing, everything for it, and I found my feet. 2017 was the first year. We started with 18 players and this year we have 52. Of that, 16 boys are international and the rest South African.”
Essentially, they form their own team for a five-month period and numerous players go on to play Currie and Varsity Cup, exposure that hasn’t gone unnoticed outside South Africa. “I dealt with Scott Johnson back in the day and through the Macphail scholarship, we take three Scottish players each year, guys on the verge of getting a contract.
“We give them feedback after five months and go, ‘This guy is worth signing, he’s developing nicely’. Now because we are involved in SA Rugby, they put five players in. The Bulls put six players in. Brazil rugby jumped on it this year – they decided that in four years’ time that if they can get four players per year coming through a proper system, they can give themselves a better chance of making a World Cup.
“The rest are local or foreign boys, extra Scottish boys, some English boys. Saracens sometimes contact us if there is a player released out of an academy that is just not there yet, they put him in South Africa and see how he develops. That is the reason why it is five months long, to fit in with the European model. We start the programme in January, finish in June and then it is pre-season at the start of July.”
The SAS Rugby Sevens Academy is an international 5-month high performance rugby programme developing players to reach their full potential, or to achieve higher honours.#bonus matches against the @blitzboks ?#sastraining #sasrugby #choiceofchampions pic.twitter.com/Mim7PjAmC4
— Stellenbosch Academy of Sport (@sas_hp) May 9, 2023
Joubert relishes the mentoring – and why wouldn’t he give his background, only turning pro at the age of 23 following a gap year in Cheltenham and then finishing a degree in South Africa? “Nowadays, everything happens fast and kids want to be rushed. They feel if they don’t make it at 20 they are gone, but there is still a path.
“That is why I’m a massive advocate for studying because it gives you a bit of time to develop and if you can play Varsity Cup for three, four years, you will develop and if you do enough you will get an opportunity. That is where I was: I took a gap year after school, went to Cheltenham, worked in a warehouse, played a bit of rugby, moved back to No8 after three school years at lock, came back, studied and in my fourth year I got a contract.”
The warehouse yarn piques the interest of every academy intake. “I do tell the story, of course I do. They like it. I tell it to the parents as well because they also feel their kid is going to make it now. Look, if a kid can study let him study because if he breaks something tomorrow, he has got nothing.
“I enjoy mentoring the young guys, not necessarily on the field but off the field as well, developing them as people. Guys come here, they might be a bit shy, introverted and they go out with a greater personality. They are out of the house for the first time ever and they find their feet. It’s rewarding.”
It was 2009 when Joubert – the player – received his life-changing phone call. Brendan Venter, the doctor who dealt with injuries at the Lions, wanted a word. “If you had injuries, insurance claims, you spoke to Brendan. I’d just injured my hand and when he rang, I thought there was probably an insurance issue.
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“He said, ‘How is the injury going?’ I said, ‘It’s fine’. Then he luckily asked me about Saracens and I said, ‘I’m dying to muck in’. About 17 of us ended up going there in the beginning and I never looked back. I just thought it was a great opportunity to play rugby and see what it was like abroad. I was almost 29 leaving South Africa thinking I would probably play one more year because everyone in South Africa was asking me at 27 when was I retiring.
“I rocked up at Saracens with confidence a bit low and then all of a sudden, I found my confidence with Brendan and Mark (McCall) telling me how vital I am in the team. All of a sudden it grew. I played one year and realised I was actually very young in this group. Then it became two years, three, four… the professionalism, how they treated us and the fun we had was eye-opening.
“Jacques Burger always joked the team had no stars except for Schalk Brits. We didn’t have a lot of internationals, it was just guys who came from a place where all of them wanted to work hard, wanted to make it, finally got the opportunity and actually cracked on and made it. It was just guys who had strong beliefs and were so keen to play the game. It was all about team environment, family and that built the foundations for what there is today.
“I don’t think winning was ever the main focus at Saracens. It has changed a bit because of the success which is good and it is natural, but we rocked up there wanting to make memories, play as hard as we could and the rest would look after itself. It played out and now the foundations are there, they are doing it well.”
What does Joubert remember most? “It’s fun to lift a trophy but everyone spoke about the silly Saracens trips and it was silly but the reason we did those trips was we worked ridiculously hard. There was Miami, staying in RVs, going on the beachfront, going to the Keys – we came back and lifted a trophy a few months later.
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“It was just those crazy out-of-the-box things. Guys were going to play hard but because of that, we worked extremely hard. That’s the thing: people hate Saracens because of the way they have this high life, but they don’t see what actually goes on because you can’t be that successful if you are just going to play around and not know your stuff.
“Everyone cared about their own role and did it perfectly. But as soon as you win trophies and you become successful, you always become the enemy at some point. It was well stated in Drive to Survive F1; everyone was happy with Red Bull until they won and then when they won, they came for them. It’s always going to be the case.”
It was 2019 when Joubert was last at a Saracens match, the club using that year’s Premiership final as the perfect excuse to reunite their 2011 breakthrough title winners. “It was brilliant, Saracens still value that group and that is why we still value Saracens,” he suggested before talking highly of the two players from 12 years ago who have just won their way through to another Premiership final with Saturday’s win over Northampton.
“Owen Farrell speaks for himself, a competitor and a hell of a guy to have in the team if you want to be organised and play well. And Alex Goode is just a freak, one of the best players I played with and no one will ever mention him. He was hard done by not getting more England caps but he is solid, has got magic – you can slot him in any position and he has a calm head.
“When you had Alex around you in the backfield you knew you were sorted because he would just chat to you the whole time and he is vital. He is probably like Willie le Roux in the Springboks, people don’t know what he does until he is in the team with you and that is Alex, a phenomenal player.”
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As for Joubert’s fellow retired teammates, Steve Borthwick gets a mention now that he is the England coach. “A proper leader, loves the game, is all about the detail. He was working like a coach when he was playing. He’s obsessed and is a brilliant man-manager, a people’s person, a brilliant leader in that.
“England will get a lot of confidence out of that because he knows what he is talking about, he will put in the hard yards and he has been there. It’s a bit like a Rassie (Erasmus) to be honest, exactly the same mould. Rassie played the game, has got the respect of the players, is obsessed with the game since he played and has reaped the rewards in the long run.”
With a young family, Joubert is “a quite happy rugby supporter on TV”. He still had plenty to say, though, about South African hot topics, starting with the bid to host this year’s Rugby World Cup not working out when it went to a 2017 World Rugby vote. “It will always be a massive missed opportunity,” he reckoned. “It’s a pity because we would have done it well.
“I can understand how from a financial point it might be hard for the tournament to be hosted in South Africa with the price of tickets, but I always think we are a great candidate for it. We have got fantastic stadiums, we are a fairly small country where you can move around, and we have got so much to offer.”
As for the potential RWC 2023 absence of inspiring Springboks skipper Siya Kolisi, Joubert added: “Massive. He’s an inspirational leader. He was playing good rugby, and just the example he sets and the hope he gives to so many people in the country, it will be very sad but that unfortunately is the nature of the beast. Someone will have to put up their hand. Not trying to fill his shoes, because that will be very hard, but just take a step and be a proper player.”
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Joubert had no qualms either defending the at times maligned style of South African play. “We’re a big nation (genetically) and the way we play is a little bit of flair but brute force. If you have won a World Cup three times, then obviously it works.
“You do it in fairness. It’s not dangerous play and it’s legal, that is what the game is about. You play to a point where you have the opposition roll over and if you can do it in a fair manner and that is the gift that we receive with our size, then we have got to play towards it.
“In the past, South Africa tried to go away from it and it didn’t work for us. We went back to it and once again it is working. I understand it. It will always be first impressions last but with the game nowadays, it is so hard to be a dirty player. But you need to be a hard, clean physical player so we will always try and do that I would think.”
Will that be enough for a successful World Cup title retention? “There is a risk like the 2011 World Cup (when South Africa last attempted a title defence) of going into it with the same group that you won it with, but I feel this group is a bit younger. The next few months will be vital with regard to injuries. We have already lost Siya and we have got Eben (Etzebeth) injured, but there is a good opportunity.
“There is a lot of pressure that a northern hemisphere team, especially the French, will probably win it. It will have to be an extraordinary effort for a southern hemisphere team to do it. This is the first time ever we are going into a World Cup where no one is talking about New Zealand and that is probably what they want – it’s the first time ever. You can never write them off.
“But with the time that this South African team will spend together, we will get a good World Cup team because of that. At other times, players are abroad but in a World Cup year we tend to gel because guys just have that more time.”
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