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'I was stunned, it was surreal... I couldn't have dreamed of it'

By Daniel Gallan
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Ivan van Zyl has learned plenty of new tricks since he joined Saracens in 2021. By his own admission, he needed to sharpen his skills to meet the unique demands of European rugby. He has honed his kicking game and adapted to the wind at the StoneX Stadium which he said, “Never stops for a second”.


But in the two years that the South African has been at the English club, he has helped to educate his teammates on one important thing. At least he is trying to. “I’m still teaching them how to do a proper braai,” he told RugbyPass, using the Afrikaans word for a barbecue.

“I’m the one with the tongs. We had one at my place a few weeks ago and the boys all brought little sausages or smaller bits to nibble. I realised I’m the one who has to bring the steaks.”

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That is not all van Zyl has contributed this season. After losing to an 80th-minute Freddie Burns drop goal in last year’s Gallagher Premiership final, Mark McCall and Owen Farrell encouraged their team to play a more expansive game.

“We played exactly how Leicester wanted us to play,” the Pretoria-born scrum-half said of that 15-12 defeat at Twickenham last June. “This season we have prepared to make smarter decisions and be more adaptable. That is what rugby is. The better we can make decisions the better it is for the team. But the team needs to get you in those positions.”


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It’s not a rebrand. Saracens haven’t exactly torn a leaf out of Harlequins’ chaotic playbook, but it is more fluid. That formidable pack is now supplemented with a more attack-minded backline. It has paid off. Only Northampton scored more than Saracens’ plunder of 78 tries in the regular league season.


But marrying the club’s traditional hard edge with an enterprising mindset requires balance and composure – especially from the man acting as a fulcrum between these two departments. Van Zyl has been that person.

He has started 15 games in this league campaign, six more than last season, and has been the beneficiary of Aled Davies’ hip injury, but van Zyl’s performances have ensured that the Welshman’s absence didn’t hinder the team.

Two weeks ago, at the club’s end-of-year function that doubled up as a farewell party for Jackson Wray, Duncan Taylor, Max Malins and Ruben de Haas, van Zyl was shocked to hear his name called out when it came time to announce the player’s player of the year award.

“I was stunned,” he admitted with wide eyes, clearly still coming to terms with the gong. “It was surreal. To be recognised by this group, with so many internationals who have won European Cups and Premierships, with so many (British and Irish) Lions in there as well, it was incredible.


“To be voted by them was really humbling. I honestly couldn’t have dreamed of it. Apart from playing for the Springboks, it was the proudest moment of my career.”

When asked why he thought his decorated teammates voted for him, van Zyl, who has just inked a two-year contract extension, remained humble. He cited the extra game-time and gave credit to the pack in front of him as well as Farrell’s influence at first receiver. But that wouldn’t do, so he was pressed further.

“These guys appreciate hard work and that is something I have always taken pride in,” he finally relented. “That is a massive focus for these people. They value the little things that fans maybe don’t see.


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“I came here pretty raw. I had spent seven seasons with the Bulls, and you learn to play a certain way in South Africa. It was almost never wet, and the ground was hard. The only time I played in the wind was the odd time in Cape Town. I had this idea that I was sharp, but you come here and it’s a different game.

“I wanted to prove that I belonged in that changing room. Now my game is the best it has ever been. I’m so much better technically. I don’t make as many mistakes as I used to. Every part of my game has improved.”

Van Zyl added that he wants to leave a legacy with the club. Though he didn’t watch much northern hemisphere rugby when he was making his name in South Africa, Saracens’ reputation filtered through the fog and left a mark.

He name-checked Brendan Venter and lauded the foundations set before McCall took full control in 2011. He smiled when speaking of the all-conquering ‘Saffacens’ that included Schalk Brits, Schalk Burger, Vincent Koch, Petrus du Plessis and Neil de Kock.

“When I’d occasionally talk to those guys, they would all speak about Sarries as this incredible place,” van Zyl continued. “I always said that if I ever moved overseas this is the club where I would want to go.

“There is a standard here that not many clubs can match. Making finals is not enough. We judge ourselves by winning trophies. You are not satisfied unless you achieve that goal. That hunger and desire to keep going and do it again and again is something to admire. I have loved being a part of it.”

Besides adding another trinket for the mantlepiece, victory over Sale Sharks on Saturday would accomplish something else that is on van Zyl’s to-do list. At least, he hoped it will. “I haven’t stopped thinking about playing for the Boks again. Of course, it’s every South African rugby player’s dream to play for the Boks and I’d love to be there again.”

The last of his six Test appearances came in November 2018 on South Africa’s end-of-year tour to Europe. He was the starting scrum-half in Rassie Erasmus’ first game in charge – a 22-20 loss to Wales in Washington DC – but was soon overtaken by Faf de Klerk, Cobus Reinach and Herschel Jantjies. By the time the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad was announced a year later, van Zyl was on the periphery.

He admitted that “something miraculous would need to happen” for him to earn a ticket to France at the end of this year, but he is still only 27. “The next World Cup is the target. All I can control is to play well and put in big performances.

“Those guys ahead of me have been playing brilliantly but I’m getting closer. All I can do is control my own game. I think winning a trophy with a massive club playing in a very tough league would help get me noticed.”


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bob 413 days ago

I would imagine that some of the spectacular but inexperienced South African scrum halves we have seen in the URC would find it harder in the wet underfoot and windy conditions of Europe?

Dawid 415 days ago

Braai is not Afrikaans for “BBQ”

BBQ is a style of cooking popular in the USA, and what the Brits call it if one poor sod stands outside grilling sausages and patties for the party inside.

The english for Braai is grill, thats how you cook at a Braai.

The event of a Braai is where the fire and the (eventual cooking) is the center of the party and all Saffas sit or stand around the grill hoping for the honour to hold the thongs whilst the braaimaster goes inside for a drink, or a call of nature.

The closest cultural comparison is the Argentinian asado.

Lets not confuse bbq and braai please.

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