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Lood de Jager: 'I'm very thankful, it could have ended terribly'

By Liam Heagney
Springboks lock Lood de Jager (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

It was quite the thrill for RugbyPass to catch up with the back-in-rude-health Lood de Jager over Zoom this week. Seven months ago there were grave fears that the Springbok lock’s stellar career might have suddenly abruptly ended at the age of 30 due to a heart condition.

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He sat out the Rugby World Cup, was warned off doing anything that might quicken his heart rate, and told to play a stressful waiting game. Do it correctly and there would be no complications. He did exactly that.

Given the green light to get his boots back on, he is now cherishing every moment of his comeback, returning to play with the table-topping Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan as well as formulating plans to stay on for longer than his originally contracted three seasons with the Saitama club.

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Capping it all is the aspiration to make it back into the Springboks fold now that Rassie Erasmus is back at the helm as the head coach. It was last August on international duty when de Jager’s 2023 took a frightening turn for the worse.

The priority was getting stuck into Argentina in Buenos Aires and ensuring he was selected to go to his third World Cup. Instead, the Monday training session in South America left him wilting and worried.

“Five minutes in I felt like someone was sitting on my chest, I couldn’t breathe. I was almost suffocating, just pressure on my chest and shortness of breath. Just a very eerie feeling. I went off the field and told the doctor something was not right… Tuesday morning I just felt no good. Just stayed in my hotel until we flew back.”

What transpired was he had an infection he wasn’t aware of in the weeks before that, had kept training, and put his heart under more pressure. That was how he ended up with more fluid around the heart, a condition known as pericarditis. The scary thing was that it wasn’t until got back to South Africa that the condition was properly diagnosed.

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“A big credit to the Springboks medical staff,” he enthused. “It was actually misdiagnosed in Argentina because I went for the scans there, that is where I first picked up that there was an issue.

“The tests there didn’t quite pick it up because I didn’t go for an MRI and then our team doctor was, ‘Look, let’s just make sure when we get back to South Africa that we didn’t miss anything’. So it was then that they picked it up, the pericarditis, so I am very thankful. It could have ended terribly.”

It was January 13, 27 days after his 31st birthday, that de Jager made his playing comeback, scoring a 30th-minute try for Panasonic in their Japan League One round five hammering of Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars in Kanagawa. Playing the match was the easy part. What was difficult was staying the course and ensuring no hitches were encountered when negotiating his way through a drawn-out recuperation.

“It’s quite a weird one, playing the game wasn’t as much of a comeback as getting into full training. After the long lay-off, it is always tricky when you deal with these types of conditions. To get the heart rate up and stuff like that is always going to be a big worry.

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“For me, it was more getting into more training than actually playing the match because I didn’t have any physical issues like a shoulder or a knee that prevented me from playing. It was just to get my fitness back in general, get full fitness back, and be able to push my body again, to be able to be fit enough to be able to play it, that was the biggest challenge.

“It was all worked out by our coach and obviously by the cardiologist, the people who are experts in the field. The first 10 weeks was nothing, I couldn’t get my heart rate above 100, I wasn’t allowed to take my heart rate above 100 beats per minute, so it was just rest and then gradually it was two weeks of heart rate between 100 and 120 and then 120 to 140 and gradually they worked it up until I was allowed train at the maximum.

“That was probably four-and-a-half, five months down the road before I could finally start training and taking my body to max heart rate levels. It was a gradual build-up. I’d say from when I could start taking my heart rate above 100 it was I’d say another eight to 10 weeks before I was allowed to fully train, start training with the team.”

If there was a silver lining to missing the World Cup in France, a tournament that culminated in the Springboks remarkably picking off three knockout stage one-point wins to retain the trophy, it was that de Jager got to watch the October 28 final at home in Cape Town with his father.

“The quarter-final I said I’m watching with nobody, I’m watching it on my own. I get a little bit worked up. That was brutal, that was very stressful. I was joking with the people and saying this is not the best for my heart, I don’t know if it is a very good thing.

“So the quarter-final I watched on my own, semi-final actually with friends. I knew the French would be a tough game. I thought against England, with their performances earlier on, that it would be a bit of an easy game but that was not the case. They played extremely well and it was even more stressful than the quarter-final.

“And then the final I watched with my dad. I thought to myself when will I ever get the opportunity to watch a final with my dad, so it was good to watch that with him and my wife and my mum and just a couple of close family and friends.

“It was very special indeed winning that for the second time (in a row) and seeing how much it meant for the people in the country, People were driving around the streets with flags, honking and playing music. It was an unbelievable thing to experience.”

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Now back in the thick of it in Japan, de Jager is lapping up Panasonic’s style of rugby so much that the indications are he will be extending his three-year stay. Asked what his plan is, he said: “I’m not sure I can answer this. Is Mack on the call? Mack, are you there? Liam, just asked me about my future so I’m not quite sure what can be said and whatnot. I just want to check with you.”

Mack picked up. “Well, what we can say from the club perspective is we are really happy with what Lood has offered and we will be happy to keep working with him a bit more in the future. Is that a good enough answer for you, Liam?”

Perfect. What is it about Panasonic that has suited the now 30-something de Jager so well after a career that began at the Cheetahs and has taken in the Bulls and Sale Sharks en route to Japan? “I enjoy the attacking style of rugby. I started my career at the Cheetahs, it was very similar. We weren’t quite as successful. A similar mindset of playing attacking rugby.

“Test rugby and that kind of stuff, it’s understandable you have to be very good at set-piece, good at defence and stuff like that. For me, playing in the northern hemisphere and playing in South Africa for so long, it was just like a breath of fresh air to come here.

“It’s completely different, it’s chalk and cheese from northern hemisphere rugby. It’s just a good attacking mindset of the team, how we want to play with the ball in hand. It’s good to be contributing to the style of play the way I am.

“I reckon it’s a lot to do with the schedule as well. You have got a lot more free time with a young family. My family is something that is very, very important to me. As well as still working hard and still getting all of the work done, the schedule, they have got it right.

“You don’t have to be there the whole day. You can break it up into two sections so in the middle of the day, most days we get the middle of the day off, three hours in the middle of the day to come home to spend time with the kids and your wife.

“The schedule in general, there are a few more bye weeks. The club gives us a lot of free time, a lot of time to spend with the family, so for me it has been probably the biggest positive about moving to Panasonic Wild Knights.

“They prioritise family time for the players,” he continued, adding: “It starts at the top, starts with the staff; the whole organisation is run the right way and it filters down to the players and filters down to everybody – and we have got very good Japanese players.

“I reckon we have got the best Japanese players in the competition mixed with some decent foreigners. It’s just winning is a habit, the same as losing. We pride ourselves on our winning record and we try to keep it every week we take the field.”

Champions in 2022 and beaten finalists last year, Panasonic are currently nine wins from nine and looking to take back their title. Will a run to the final be just the thing to vault de Jager back into the reckoning with the Springboks who have a June Test in London versus Wales before hosting Ireland in a two-match series in July?

“Can’t say too much. I’m taking it game by game. I don’t want to say too much but hopefully, I will be there and it will be good for me. Missing out on last year and rugby in general, I have found my love for the game again. You feel like a kid again every time you are on the field.

“Whether it is for Panasonic or hopefully for the Boks later in the year, I’m just very thankful to be out on the field. When you get a real big scare and things get put into perspective when you get a condition like that, honestly for me every day out on the field is a massive blessing at the moment.

“We’ll see how it goes. I just want to play well for Panasonic. If that all goes well hopefully you guys can see me play for the Boks as well. We’ll see.”

  • Click here to follow the RugbyPass TV coverage of the Japan League One, which includes a live broadcast of de Jager’s Wild Knights at the Spears on March 22
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Comments

2 Comments
J
John 93 days ago

Never doubt the heart of a Springbok

C
Coach 102 days ago

We would welcome him back. Solid lock who is superior in the line-outs, great partnership with Eben and rather a large unit. Yes, Lood, we want you back for the Boks!!

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