Sale have unleashed some big South African beasts on the Gallagher Premiership this season, but they will all be dwarfed when World Cup-winning lock Lood de Jager – standing at 6ft 9ins and weighing in at 19st 6lbs – makes his long-awaited debut against London Irish at the AJ Bell Stadium on Friday night.
De Jager has joined a Sale squad specifically built on South African power and helping the giant lock get used to the Manchester weather have been fellow Springbok World Cup winner Faf de Klerk, club captain Jono Ross, Coenie Oosthuizen, Akker van der Merwe, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and the three du Preez brothers Rob, Dan and Jan-Luc.
With four more signings about to be announced by Sale, it looks certain that de Jager will be joined by a third World Cup winner in Vincent Koch, the Saracens tighthead. The deal to bring de Jager to Sale was originally signed last April when he was recovering from surgery to repair the right shoulder he damaged captaining the Bulls against the Jaguares in Super Rugby.
The 27-year-old battled back in time to take his place in the World Cup squad only to seriously damage his left shoulder making a tackle on England No8 Billy Vunipola in the 21st minute of the November final which South Africa won 32-12 in Yokohama.
Despite posting a video of his ‘moving’ shoulder joint as he lay in the medical room of the Yokohama Stadium, he was able to join his Springbok team-mates on the podium to receive his winner’s medal with his left arm in a sling.
He then took part in the post-match celebrations and the subsequent trophy bus tour around South Africa before putting all of his efforts into yet more rehabilitation work which meant a delayed start to his career in England with Sale.
The long period of rehab required mental as well as physical commitment, particularly when facing the same recovery challenge for the second time in less than a year.
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De Jager told RugbyPass: “In the last twelve months I have had two shoulder operations, won the World Cup and moved to England, a pretty busy time. There have been lots of ups and downs, a bit of a rollercoaster. Let’s hope the injuries stay away now. I haven’t got another shoulder to injure – just the two.
“It has been worth it and the World Cup win is something I will never forget. They gave me some pretty strong pain killers so I could celebrate the win and the surgery took place after the trophy tour, which was an incredible experience.
“I will never forget seeing what it meant to so many people and it still gives me goosebumps. I have never seen so many people in my life and Rassie (Erasmus, the Springbok coach) spoke during the tournament that we were doing it for our country.”
De Jager made an immediate impact at Test level, winning the SA Rugby player of the year award in 2015, and his all-round game made him an obvious target for Steve Diamond, the Sale director of rugby who has put together a squad capable of winning the Premiership for the first time since their 2005/06 triumph.
Sale’s lineout has revolved around the excellence and consistency of All Black Bryn Evans, who is second in the Premiership with 56 wins, and now de Jager will offer another target.
With de Jager’s delayed arrival and Josh Beaumont’s serious knee injury affecting the club’s second row options, Sale have been forced to ask the du Preez brothers Jean-Luc and Dan to take on more of the heavy work as well as their natural foraging and tackling.
But now the very large cavalry is arriving. De Jager added: “I have known some of the South African guys for a very long time and it has made the transition for myself and my wife much easier. “We have a great spirit at the club and we have managed to beat Leicester and Gloucester despite guys away or injured. Hopefully, when we get the full strength squad together we can really dominate.
“Bryn puts a lot of work into the lineout and hopefully I can ease the burden on him a bit – we are both passionate about lineouts. The Premiership is becoming the most competitive domestic league in the world and every team has quality right across the pitch.
“I’m really excited about playing my first game for Sale. After my injury, Steve said I could have a couple of weeks off and I took time to recharge the batteries having been in a race against time to be fit for the World Cup.
“Mentally it was very tough and now I’m looking forward to getting stuck in. I spoke to Steve a lot before I signed and we all want to achieve something special over the next couple of years.”
Sale captain Ross goes into Friday night’s game needing just five tackles to bring up 200 for the Premiership season. De Jager is full of admiration, stating: “Jono has been leading from the front on the tackle count and it really inspires the rest of the guys.”
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