Fifteen-year-old Jordan Venter was dozing on the back seat when the car carrying his mother, stepfather and two stepbrothers was smashed by a careering coal truck, flinging him violently from the vehicle and on to the roadside in a maelstrom of debris, gore and unimaginable horror.
The family were meandering back across the South African border from the perfect holiday in Mozambique. The boys, Venter, 15-year-old Christian and 12-year-old Aldin Kiesen, had ridden jet skis, frolicked on the gorgeous sun-baked beaches and forged bonds they expected would lay the foundations for a lifetime of friendship.
In one desperate, wretched flash, their blossoming little clan was decimated. Of the five passengers, only Venter and his mother Gillian survived, each nursing heinous injuries. Gillian’s partner Hein and his sons were both killed on that arid stretch of the N4 highway.
Nearly three years on, Venter is known now as the gregarious prodigy gobbled up by Edinburgh straight from his school on the Western Cape, a professional contract that begins in December and a forthcoming move that has gone down in many circles like Finn Russell’s third beer.
But we’ll come to the vitriol and the cynicism later. Simply to get here, to the point of digesting the withering coverage of his transfer, he has had to chart a voyage of unfathomable sorrow, immense bravery and a ravenous thirst to succeed for himself and for those he has lost.
The day after the crash, Venter woke up in an intensive care unit with a fractured skull, a cracked pelvis and a punctured lung. Gillian’s condition was graver still, her liver leaking blood and body ravaged by scores of deep lesions. Her physical and emotional scars linger to this day.
“It was 2am when we were driving back from Mozambique, hella early,” the fledgling centre says. “I sent my dad a message just before the accident happened – ‘I can’t wait to see you’ – because I was flying back to his farm in George the next day.
“I didn’t have a seatbelt on while I was sleeping and I flew out of the car. I woke up in the ICU the next day and I couldn’t really move my legs properly, I had a neck brace on and I thought I’d broken my neck – those thoughts were bloody scary. I was in there for almost a week-and-a-half.”
You cannot begin to quantify the grief wrought on a boy so young at the centre of such visceral trauma. The things he must have seen. The whirring emotions he must have felt; the fear, the loss, the devastation.
He talks about the whole ghastly ordeal with a quite astonishing maturity. There is no obvious guilt that he was spared while others perished. He was bed-ridden for the better part of six months, he had to learn how to put one foot in front of the other again, teach his limbs how to bear weight, and yet he did so with the sort of intrepid zeal you’d read about in a Ranulph Fiennes memoir.
“My first night after leaving the ICU for a normal ward, I thought, I’ve got two options – I can either hate the world, be depressed, stop everything and become a burden to myself, or I can use this situation to work my ass off to get back to rugby, reach my goals and try to see where I can go with the game. I might as well choose the happy option, even though it was a tragic, tragic event.
“The things I had to go through just to get my body ready for life, not even to play again. I said to myself, the moment I can get out of this bed, I am going to ****ing gym myself into a coma.
“My car accident basically changed my perspective on life, the way I think about things. Something like that gives you a second chance at life, and you have got to take it to your advantage. Why be depressed or unhappy about it? That is my mentality.”
Gymming oneself into a coma was all well and good, but first Venter had to coax his aching frame out of the bed that borne him for months on end. The road ahead was long, undulating and at times forlorn.
“My first goal was getting up – and every single time I did, my nose would bleed,” he says. “I took my first couple of steps around the ward and after that, I couldn’t even breathe because I was so tired.
“When I got home, for the next four months I couldn’t do anything. I lost nearly 18KGs, like my body was cannibalising itself. I was like a stick, lying in bed, unable to do anything, then I had to slowly learn to walk again because I couldn’t use my pelvis.
“The next goal was to walk to the kitchen every day on my crutches, just make it to the kitchen. I hated it, I wanted to bloody run, just chuck the things away and run, but you can’t.”
The next two years of Venter’s life were an exercise in conquering demons, setting and smashing little targets, trusting the process and reaping the rewards.
Eventually, he could discard the crutches and begin to lift weights again. He returned to Paul Roos Gymnasium, the school that has produced more Springboks than any in the land, knowing he had two months to catch up on his studies or fail the year. He was lucky to benefit from the supreme Stellenbosch Academy of Sport next door, where he had access to elite-level treatment and knowledge. But the graft was all his own.
“I got up at 04:50, went to the gym and did heavy weights, did my rehab, then I was grinding on the academic stuff, and then I’d do another gym session in the evening,” he says.
“For the next few months, I was in and out of physio, strengthening my hamstring, my cruciate, my legs, gaining weight, and after two months of rehab for my hip, I did a month of just strengthening and gymming it. I could only do fast walks for that first year, no running. It wasn’t until the December I was allowed to run again and play touch rugby tournaments.
“The whole thing sounds horrible, but I don’t think about it from that perspective, I just went through the process, did my own rehab, got back to training, back to school, back to rugby, got my life back.”
The anguish didn’t end there. After that painstaking recovery, Venter was on the cusp of playing for the Stormers at the Under-16 Craven Week, the storied proving ground for aspiring South African talent, when he dislocated his shoulder.
After all he had surmounted to get back in the sport, it was a sickening blow, yet another test of his redoubtable character.
“People said I was crazy going back to play again, but I looked fantastic for my age, solidly built, I’d worked really hard.
“That shoulder injury put me in a really depressed state because I was out again for the whole year. So I missed two years of rugby in total.
“After that, I thought, what did I do wrong coming back from the car accident? So I worked on my mobility, I worked on ligament strength, I worked on all the small rugby skills and speed. I got back from the shoulder damage, trained hard again, and I was in top shape. I love the gym, the training, the hard work.
“My whole high school life has been me preparing myself. I want it. I bloody want it. I really want to play pro rugby. I literally worked my ass off to get that opportunity.”
During all of this time, Venter would meticulously cut together highlights packages of himself in action and blast them out to the world across his social media. He had grown to nearly 6ft 2ins and put on slabs of lean, rippling sinew that took his weight to 97KG. At 17, he had the torso of a prizefighter. Boys just aren’t supposed to look like he does.
At some point, somehow, his footage reached Scotland. Edinburgh team manager Matthew Cornwell came across this rampaging beast in the body of a teen and set the wheels in motion for a week-long trial in September last year.
Venter almost combusts with excitement when he talks about the experience, a little green pup tossed in with the sharks, great, hulking men he had watched on television, with his father Pieter lapping it up on the sidelines. The bull-headed coach Richard Cockerill cackled when his trialist was bamboozled by some new drill or some unknown play, but made it clear he admired his skills, brutality and desire.
Pierre Schoeman, one of Edinburgh’s hefty South African contingent (with the emphasis firmly on hefty) chucks 70KG dumbbells above his head in training and gave the lithe upstart a thunderous introduction to the pro ranks.
“I ran back a kick, I saw Schoeman coming, he lined me up and absolutely smashed me. But I bounced up quickly and kept running!
“Schoemies, the moment I got there, took me out for a drive back to the place I was staying and just showed me around Edinburgh, he really took his time to get to know me. Nic Groom as well was awesome.
“And I tried not to just connect with the South African boys, I spoke to the academy guys, the sevens guys, Scottish guys like Rory Sutherland and Ross McCann, and they were sick guys. Rory and I had a long talk about how he came back from his groin injury – a top, top man.
“It’s crazy to think that I was 17 at the time and I was playing full-contact matches with male pros. I ran, tackled, got smashed. I was playing with massive men, but I bloody loved it, I was in my element.”
On the final day of the trial, Duncan Hodge, Edinburgh’s attack coach, mentioned in typically deadpan fashion that the club were keen to sign him. Father and son had a meeting with Cockerill where a deal was tentatively agreed and later rubber-stamped by Scottish Rugby. Edinburgh have helped set him up with a place at the city’s Napier University, where he will study international business and economics alongside his sport.
And while you can’t predict for sure how a boy will take to life among men, the transition for Venter ought to be as smooth as possible given where he is coming from. Paul Roos boasts an insanely professional school programme. Kids are in the gym at 5am, in a team meeting straight after class, then on the field for another two hours, conducting the level of analysis and wielding an arsenal of technology that would make some elite sides blush. Rightly or wrongly, the school is a high-performance environment.
Yet in South Africa, shrinking budgets and squads, transformation quotas and the sheer abundance of emerging talent make leaving for Europe a hugely attractive prospect for young tyros with big ambitions. Venter has captained South Africa’s Under-18 Sevens side and bossed the blistered and ruthless paddocks of the national schools competitions. He is English-qualified thanks to Gillian’s parents and for as long as he can remember, has yearned to play overseas. He is, patently, a terrific player, but he is unquestionably not Scottish.
The union took an almighty pasting for taking him in so young, the obvious inference that if they get him here at 18, he will be eligible to play for Scotland by 23. What sort of message does that send to those reared on home shores? What does it say about Scotland’s academy system if there are no native centres ready to step up and claim a professional contract? How can a 17-year-old half the world away be deemed better than what has been nurtured here for longer?
“You don’t just come over so young for no reason,” Venter admits. “There is obviously an elephant in the room. But if I want to play for Scotland it will take five years. My whole goal is just to play for Edinburgh and let that stuff come naturally, let me see where my rugby takes me.
“I have massive goals to play international rugby and if it is with Scotland and that opportunity comes, then so be it. As a South African boy, I feel like Scotland maybe lacks a bit of competition. Scottish Rugby are trying to build that up by getting in younger players. There will be maybe six other centres and guys in the semi-pro Super6 on my tail that want my spot and that competition is really healthy.
“The first instinct of the supporters will be oh, some guy has just taken a home-grown player’s place. People aren’t going to like it. If I was a young lad and some guy has came from overseas and took away my position I’d be like, woah, why can’t that be me? What can I do to get there? What has he done that I haven’t? I do feel bad, but at the end of the day, it’s a career, it’s a job, and I’ve worked my ass off to get there.
“I can’t wait to contribute to Edinburgh and their community, and show people what I have done to get where I am. I really want to get out there and just play rugby – leave the politics and the articles aside and just let me play.”
The years ahead will be fascinating. Whatever you make of the ethics of Venter’s signing, he clearly has enormous potential. If Cockerill and Edinburgh think him better than what they have on their doorstep, then power to him.
In lockdown on his father’s farm, he trains and studies as hard as ever. He thinks often of Hein, Christian and Aldin, and the budding family he lost that day on the dry asphalt of the N4. He lusts to forge a career in the game not only for his own joy, but to honour their memory.
“Whether you’re religious or not, it’s pretty crazy how my part of the family was saved. Maybe there’s something I still have to do with my life,” he says.
“One of my big motivations is fulfilling my career for them, playing for them. My stepbrother Christian was one of the top golfers in South Africa for his age group, and if he only knew I was coming to Scotland, he’d be loving it – loving it.
“I have this chance now and I must get on with my life.”
The torment is over now, the wreckage and the suffering and the crutches are gone. But they remain an indelible memory and a compelling fuel as the promised land of professional rugby looms large.
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