Hanro Liebenberg knew what he was letting himself in for when he signed for Leicester on July 2. The 24-year-old from Cape Town has been through the healing process before, plying his trade for a once-leading club that had fallen on hard times.
By the time he decided his future was best served away from the Bulls, the blindside had earned his stripes, helping the Pretoria-based Super Rugby side to rejuvenate and finish their 2019 season reaching the quarter-finals.
Now the mission is to revive struggling Leicester’s fortunes, a project he was given a big insight into with last weekend’s opening round 24-16 Premiership loss at Worcester which leaves Tigers in need of a quick fix at home on Sunday when they host defending champions Saracens.
It’s easier said than done. Leicester lost six of their 11 Welford Road games in last season’s Gallagher Premiership – their last four home games were all lost – but Liebenberg, who gave himself a fleeting taste of Europe by playing some Top 14 matches last season for Heyneke Meyer’s Stade Francais, is spoiling to get stuck in.
“I love to see myself as a player with ball in hand,” he told RugbyPass. “Someone who loves carrying the ball and is also confrontational on the gain line. Someone with a good work rate. I just want to contribute as much as I can to the Tigers season and put them on track again.”
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It was a video conference call from Leicester boss Geordan Murphy that initially plugged Liebenberg into precisely what he would be joining and while there were some offers from elsewhere after it was revealed he was in discussions about coming to the East Midlands, he was as good as his word about signing on the dotted line.
“At that stage, Leicester was the only option. There were other offers after that but I had already made my mind up. I was comfortable with that situation and England was one of the places I wanted to come to and further my rugby career.
“Geordie had video-called me when I was back in South Africa just to give me a brief background of the club and what he expects, his dreams and his visions. That made me at ease. Then when I first came they just gave me a tour of everything and introduced me to all the players, all the staff.
'This club expects to win trophies. We expect to be up there at the top and we’re not… this is not good enough'
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 4, 2019
“England is a lot different. I must say the first few weeks were quite different but I have settled into a nice place in Leicester and am quite happy. I have managed to get a few friends as well and the boys have been so welcoming and so friendly, they just help me whenever they can. They have made it quite easy to adapt and settle in.
“I was looking for a different challenge, looking for a different environment. I had watched a few games and when a name comes up like this, you know it is one of the most successful clubs in England. For me, it was a no-brainer to come and join.”
All the more so as he had been through the club revival process with the Bulls and knows what is now expected at Tigers, who finished last season just one spot above relegated Newcastle.
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“You would be 100 per cent correct saying that it is a similar situation. The Bulls also went from the glory days and then a bad patch. That is where the Bulls were three years ago but they got more accountable about their situation, accepting the fact that games we would win in the past were no longer easy.
“Nowadays you can’t just assume that. Every team is above average and every team is going to give you a run for your money. That is just what we learned.
“We just adapted our training style, went back to the old methods of training hard and preparing yourself as best as you can… coming from a background with a team struggling in previous seasons and just contributing to get them back on track again. That is a nice challenge coming here.”
There is still so much more for Liebenberg to learn about Leicester. For instance, it will be a while yet before he gets to play alongside the six Tigers who were part of the England squad that dethroned New Zealand at the World Cup this weekend. But one that is certain is that he is living the dream as a rugby professional.
? TEAM NEWS
— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) October 25, 2019
“That was my main focus, the main reason why I went to school, probably the main reason why I passed school as well. Rugby was always my dream, my goal in life,” he said in fluent enough English, a language the Afrikaans speaker started to first learn as an eight-year-old at school in Cape Town, the city he lived in before youths rugby at Boland led to a breakthrough call from the Bulls in 2015.
“Leaving family and friends behind is difficult, but you’re chasing your dream and doing what makes you happy in the long run. Your family and friends will always understand that and back you.”
Not that they are a million miles away. With his parents booked in for a two-week visit around Christmas and his brother only an hour’s flight away in France, Leicester can quickly become a real home away from him for him.
A rare win over Saracens – whom Leicester have only ever beaten four times in their last 19 meetings – would surely only accelerate that feeling.
WATCH: Former Leicester great Neil Back sits down with RugbyPass in the opening episode of the Rugby World Cup Memories series
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