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Jannes Kirsten: 'I got hit by the prop, he absolutely humbled me'

By Liam Heagney
Jannes Kirsten in his Exeter days (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

You could be fooled into thinking that South African Jannes Kirsten has disappeared off the face of the rugby earth since last seen in action last May. He played 80 Champions Cup/Gallagher Premiership matches across four seasons for Exeter, including a pivotal part in their 2019/20 dream double, but he hasn’t been in a game since a farewell runout for the Chiefs 11 months ago in London Irish’s final fixture before their collapse.

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Kirsten fancied retracing his steps, taking himself back to Pretoria where a three-year deal was inked with his Bulls. However, nearly a year into this second coming at his hometown club, it won’t be until later this month that he might finally be medically cleared to make a belated second debut.

What gives? The Rugby World Cup meant the URC had a later starting date than usual and it was Kirsten’s rotten luck that having done all the gruelling pre-season, he brutally came a cropper on the training ground.

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Bulls forward Jannes Kirsten on the beauty of rugby’s physicality

Bulls forward Jannes Kirsten speaks about the beauty of rugby’s physicality and some of the biggest hits he’s ever given out and received.

Video Spacer

Bulls forward Jannes Kirsten on the beauty of rugby’s physicality

Bulls forward Jannes Kirsten speaks about the beauty of rugby’s physicality and some of the biggest hits he’s ever given out and received.

“I started at the Bulls last July, did pre-season, everything went well and then when we were doing some mauling, I picked up a nasty foot injury,” explained the flame-haired back-rower to RugbyPass.

“I had to get surgery to get it fixed and have been in rehab since. It’s almost six months now. Initially, it was a six-month injury. I tried to play earlier but the time is somewhere in April now and hopefully, I will be back playing.

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“It’s a Lisfranc injury to my right foot. It keeps the bridge of your foot like that (he uses his hand to demonstrate). It’s a ligament and I tore it and they had to do a little bit of work on it. I had a similar something in 2018 and that was also quite a few months, but this is my longest layoff. I’m keen to play any rugby now. It’s been a while.”

Kirsten is fortunate. His brother Frik had his career taken from him. “He’s five years older than me, played for the Bulls also and he picked up a serious neck injury. He played tighthead prop and after a consultation with the doctors their advice was he shouldn’t keep on playing.”

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When he does eventually return to play, Kirsten’s wish is there will still be plenty to play. The Bulls are looking good to be involved in June’s league play-offs while they have also moved into next weekend’s quarter-finals of the Investec Champions Cup for the first time, their thumping 59-19, round-of-16 win over Lyon at Loftus leaving them set to visit Northampton next Saturday.

When he left Pretoria for England, the Bulls were part of the Super Rugby fabric. Now, it’s all URC and Champions Cup. “Things change a lot in four years, especially in rugby terms. A lot has changed but also a lot has remained the same. I enjoyed my time a lot at Exeter. It was a difficult decision (to leave) but every player has a unique situation.

“I was on my own in England; I’d no family there. It was probably the best four years of my life in Exeter, the countryside and the support we had in Exeter and all the people around was incredible. But for me, coming back it’s hard to pinpoint one decision.

“Maybe family. I turned 30 last December and I can’t play rugby forever. I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in the UK or not. I have got quite a few opportunities for life after rugby in South Africa, which I wouldn’t mind pursuing. Also, I got engaged recently and that plays a big role back home. It’s hard to do that stuff when you are overseas.”

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Ad the rugby? “The Bulls with Jake (White) are doing very well. That was always an attraction. You want to move to a team that’s doing well. Exeter is also doing well, but home will always be home for me. I’m from Pretoria, born here, and being at the Bulls previously before, it was an easy move.

“It felt like going home, it wasn’t a funny transfer. So you get Loftus, I went to school right next to Loftus. I went to university right next to Loftus. It’s my home, I’ve lived here all my life. In terms of that, it was an easy decision.”

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Conquering the north is the Bulls’ objective and southern hemisphere fans are now realising how massive a task it is. “Maybe it’s just me but when the South Africans were still playing in Super Rugby we weren’t quite as aware of how vital the Champions Cup is,” Kirsten suggested, sitting in an upstairs room with the windows open to his right and a boat picture on the wall behind him.

“We underestimated how important it is for a team to win that trophy and we have got to get into the hang of things. South African teams have won and played in the URC finals. Moving on, you’re thinking about what’s next. No South African team has been in the final of the Champions Cup or lifted the trophy.

“Looking back at previous teams that have been able to win it, they always say for a young upcoming player the Champions Cup is where you can show if you are international quality. Look at Leinster, it’s close to an international team. La Rochelle. Even if you look back at Toulon from 2013 to 2015, the amount of World Cup-winning internationals in that team. It’s starting to settle in in South Africa how big that trophy really is to be able to compete in it.”

That’s the aspired-to future. What about Kirsten’s memories of Exeter negotiating the pandemic stoppage to finish his elongated first season in the UK as double champions? “The period we had during covid, Rob Baxter said, ‘Listen, here we have an opportunity to really make a difference. We can sit at home and be disgusted and be negative about the whole situation or we can use this as an opportunity, really get ourselves up for the end of the season because it is going to happen’.

“I don’t think he knew himself, but he really convinced us that the end was going to happen, and we had a great opportunity. As a group of players, we believed it and really got together. With social media, we shared how we trained, challenged ourselves over social, saying, ‘I did this in this time, can someone beat me?’

“Everyone recorded their stuff, and it had a knock-on effect. By the time we resumed our games, the whole squad was fit and because we were so well positioned on the log, we played two games per week and fielded two different teams. You didn’t have players who had to double up every week. The depth we had was incredible… it just worked out very well in terms of squad rotation and fitness.”

Lifting trophies at Twickenham and Ashton Gate vindicated Kirsten’s decision to jump into the unknown swapping the Bulls for the Chiefs. “Speaking to Rob, he didn’t ask much about rugby, it was more you as a person – ‘Are you going to fit in at the club? Do you to socialise? Do you like to spend time with players? Are you introvert, extrovert?’ Things like that.

“Exeter are a big social squad, all the players are quite involved with each other. We spent a lot of time together and I liked that. I expected England to be a type of football culture, rugby would be on the sideline, but I went to Exeter and with their history coming from third league to winning a Championship and then within six, seven years winning the Premiership, it’s a fairy tale story for the town.

“That incredible support and the passion for rugby, that’s the beautiful thing, just the ridiculous amount of support you have there and the love for the team. Even if things weren’t going well, you never got any bad feedback. It was always positive, a really special place.

“The first day I walked in there I had to go for swimming, a fitness session. It was raining and there was a lot of seagulls. I thought to myself, ‘What have I done?’ Spending half a day with the guys they were already asking, ‘Where do you live? What’s going on? What are you doing on the weekend?’

“Such a close-knit and friendly environment. The culture is all about the players and being together. I really just felt comfortable from the first day and just really enjoyed it. Looking back, it’s one of the best things I could have done.”

The pity was the double was done behind closed doors. No supporters allowed. “We often speak about that. Playing at a full Twickenham, not a lot of people get to do that, and we played at an empty stadium. Even the Champions final.

“It was even worse for the supporters. Some come with jerseys that are 15, 20 years old. They were supporting Exeter when they were playing third league or whatever and following the team up until they won a Champions Cup and they couldn’t be part of it.

“I remember long after you could take a picture with the trophies but it’s never the same. You won’t ever get that experience of the streets being full and doing a bus tour. But everything happens for a reason and we thoroughly enjoyed it in our ways.”

Exeter nurtured in Kirsten a greater appreciation and understanding of what it means to be a team. “I learned a lot in my four years. Rob Baxter also asked me when I arrived, ‘What’s your strengths?’ he said, ‘You focus on that, the rest of the stuff we can work on. This is what I like about you. This is why we got you. You focus on that and the rest will develop as the season goes on’.

“By the time I left Exeter, I’d a much better understanding of how to align a team where everyone knows their strengths and you support each other within your strengths and just the way you play. Some players aren’t as good at ball carrying but they might be very good at clearing out rucks.

“It’s the way you get a team to balance out. Lineout, mauls, whatever you do, defence, how you spread out your team, I have a much better understanding in terms of that – and that gives you confidence as a player.

“If a coach tells you, ‘Listen here, this is what you do. Don’t worry about the rest, there are other players. That is why there are other guys in a position, that’s why you support them in your way because if you support them in your way, they can do what they need to do’. That gives you massive confidence in yourself and in the way you play.”

What does Kirsten miss most about England? “I do miss a Cornish pasty and a Sunday roast. We have something similar here but the English Sunday roast is world-class. But I do miss a big, tasty Cornish pasty. To be fair, my skin is quite fair, Everyone would say in South Africa, ‘What about the weather?’ I’d say, I loved the weather because I didn’t burn as easily, I could spend time outdoors. I wasn’t always sweating and could save a lot on sunscreen.”

We finish by getting the lowdown on Kirsten’s admirable tough-guy reputation. He adores the physicality. Never wants it diluted. “If rugby was a non-contact sport, is it going to be the same? No. That’s the part which I enjoy the most. Where in the world can you get 80 minutes against 15 guys who you can hit as hard as you can within the rules and it’s legal? Where else in the world can you do that?

“There are some concerns around player safety. It’s a difficult thing but it shouldn’t take away what makes rugby rugby. I mean, what other sports do you tackle people at full speed and run into each other with no armour or anything really? Bone on bone. That’s what makes rugby rugby.

“I don’t think anybody gets forced to play rugby. It’s a thing you enjoy and you do it and that is something you should remember – nobody is forcing you to do it. The guys playing there should be doing it because they love it.”

What’s your favourite tackle then, Jannes, both giving and receiving? “We played against Bath and I actually spoke to Charlie (Ewels) about it afterwards when we went to a wedding. Towards the end of the game, I gave him a nice one just to say, ‘See you soon’.

“Receiving? My worst one probably was when I made my Super Rugby debut. We were playing against the Reds and I got hit by the prop, he absolutely humbled me that time. The start of the season, starting to play Super Rugby, carrying a few balls, and then he reminds me to stay humble, to behave yourself,” he quipped with laughter.

“The thing about getting hit and giving out big hits is one of the better things about rugby. This week you might give someone a proper hit and next week, someone else comes and takes you three metres back and might even take you off the field and it all evens out. You go up and down just like that.

“That’s why I say you get 80 minutes and as soon as you jog onto that pitch, everyone is on the same level. It doesn’t matter where you come from, you have got a chance to prove yourself, to show that you are the best.”

The soon-to-be-fit Kirsten will soon get his chance to show exactly that. He’s hoping it will be worth the long wait.

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