On the Brink: 'Freak accident' won't slow Leicester Tigers new backrow brute
Cyle Brink is an obsessive, unabashed adrenaline junkie. As a kid in Johannesburg, he would soup up cars and tear around the bush with his pals, screaming away to discover some new fabled spot for adventure that had been whispered along the boy-racer grapevine. He loves bikes and boats and jet skis and his idea of the perfect day out is juddering around the rugged African expanses in a Land Cruiser.
“We did what we could to the motors to make them as fast as possible,” he says. “I had mates who were mechanics or big into the car scene, so you knew who to take your stuff to.
“You’d hear about a place and decide to go drive out there. Sometimes you’d get there and there’d be nothing, other times it was quite lekka.
“We went all over the place. We enjoyed driving to a big dam about an hour out of Jo’burg, but we’d go anywhere, it didn’t really matter.”
Just occasionally, though, somebody needs to apply the flanker’s brakes.
This year, the destructive brute attacked pre-season with the Lions, longing to reassert himself as one of his country’s premier back-rows after a dreadful spate of injuries. A move to Leicester Tigers was negotiated for the new northern hemisphere season. Then, pop. His ankle blew, and with it, Super Rugby evaporated.
“There was nobody near me, it was a freak accident,” he says. “One minute, it was fine; the next, it was buggered.
“Personally, I could have taken a bit more responsibility because I think I was overtraining at the time. Coming out of a long pre-season, you’re pushing to be as ready as you can, and maybe you are pushing a bit too hard and not investing enough in recovery.
“We’d had a three-month pre-season and I was still focusing so much on training. As a player, you need to find that balance. All the okes that play until they’re 37 or 38 find that balance as quickly as possible.”
When it comes to luck, Brink must have walked under every ladder and booted every black cat from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Two years earlier, days from making his Springboks debut, a team-mate landed on him in training and wrecked his knee. He was still recovering from shoulder nerve damage at the time and suspects the treatment given to ease pressure on the area might in fact have destabilised his joints.
“I was on medication to relax the muscles around that [shoulder] nerve and get it moving and functioning properly again,” Brink says. “That obviously played a role in weakening something in my knee and when we were doing the contact session just before we played Argentina, I went into a tackle with one or two okes and somehow or other it snapped.
“It was a very confusing time. But I had lots of support around me, my parents, family and friends, and that obviously helped. I don’t think I cooked dinner for myself once in that first month of recovery. And then just accepting that everything happens for a reason and maybe it just wasn’t your time. Get better, come back stronger.
“I made a full recovery from that and speaking to the doctor, the way he fixed that knee, it should be stronger than a normal knee.”
The ankle is coming right now too, so that by the time the COVID-19 pandemic eases and Brink can fly to England, he should be almost ready for full-contact training.
At 26, he feels he has done all he can at the Lions, his home union where he came of age and has played for eight years. This was to be his fourth Super Rugby campaign before fate intervened.
Built like a whisky barrel with limbs, Brink is the sort of dynamite-fuelled breakaway who ought to thrive in the English game. He is immensely formidable on the carry and in the tackle and a back-row combination with Jordan Taufua and Hanro Liebenberg is an exhilarating prospect.
“Before I got injured, I felt I needed to do something new – I can’t stay comfortable for the rest of my life or I’m not going to grow,” he says. “You get very set in your ways at one club so you sort of stop growing, you reach your ceiling. It’s almost like it becomes a bit too easy.
“I’ve got probably six to eight years of good rugby left and I felt I needed a change. Earning the pound is a motivating factor for a lot of South Africans but it doesn’t guarantee you’re going to be happy. You’ve got limited time as a player and you need to do and learn as much as you can and take on bigger challenges.
“The fact it was the Tigers didn’t make it too hard. [Former Leicester lock and coach] Richard Blaze was actually out in South Africa a few years ago and we had a sit-down and a chat about the culture and everything there. From then I kept tabs on Tigers and watched them play. When the opportunity came up and I got in contact with coach Steve Borthwick, I was keen to come over and start a new challenge.”
Brink is barely into middle-age as a rugby player, but his rise has undoubtedly been checked by the heinous spree of trauma – shoulder, ankle, knee and more besides.
In 2014, he reached the final of the Junior World Championship with South Africa Under-20. The team was captained by Handre Pollard and lost a pulsating final to England by a point. Among the baby Springboks group were Andre Esterhuizen, Jesse Kriel, Warrick Gelant and a squat young hooker called Malcolm Marx. Plenty of that squad are Boks now. Some are world champions.
“That was an unreal experience, really cool,” Brink says. “And we didn’t have an easy road to the final. We beat the All Blacks U20s twice that season.
“It was special putting on the Bok jersey even at junior ranks, and getting to play next to some of those guys. Out of that junior side, I think 12 or 13 went on to make their proper Springbok debuts. I’d like to be one of the guys that also comes through and makes his debut with them.”
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