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Van Velze backs Worcester's escape

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'We have never not thought about being in the Premiership... but we haven't reached our extreme potential'

It’s eight weeks and counting since GJ van Velze was last seen in the line of Gallagher Premiership fire. Bad enough that Worcester were beaten on February 16 at Harlequins, but the injury price paid by their skipper is still hurting as they continue their fight against relegation with Saturday’s home game versus play-off chasing Sale.

Van Velze had been having a rough enough day as it was. Harlequins hooker Max Crumpton wound up banned for three weeks after admitting to “punching or striking” the South African. Then came the 56th minute arm damage that is still keeping him sidelined and leaving him skippering his team from the frustrating vantage point of a seat in the Sixways stands.

Annoying? Without a doubt. “I don’t care what position the team is in, whenever you’re injured is always frustrating,” he told RugbyPass, still uncertain of his exact comeback date. “I’m on the mend. Not exactly sure how long it is going to take, but I’m definitely on the mend and things are going well.

“There was no way (of playing on with the injury). It was a previous fracture that I re-done just in a different spot, into the joint which made it very difficult. I had my two operations and it’s going well.”

With van Velze decommissioned, Warriors have been involved in an intriguing relegation war that has four battles remaining. Thirty-six points last season was enough for a comfortable 11th place conclusion 14 points clear of relegated London Irish.

(Continue reading below…)

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Eleven months later, everything is still on the line despite Worcester already having 32 points so far. They are three points ahead of bottom side Newcastle and two behind Leicester, fellow strugglers who meet head-on this Friday night at Kingston Park.

You’d imagine van Velze would be interested from afar in that outcome, but the emphasis is instead on Worcester taking care of business themselves in a run-in where three of their four games will be at home.

“I wouldn’t have a clue what our budget is, but we have a squad that has an extreme depth in talent so it’s very competitive. We have never not thought about being in the Premiership. There is still a few hurdles to overcome.

“But we have been in this position before. We know how to deal with the pressure, we know how we can control and we only need to worry about what we can control – there is no point worrying about things outside of our control.

GJ van Velze breaks free to score a try at Harlequins in 2016 (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

“Playing at home is extremely important. Our fans have been extremely loyal. You can’t question where their hearts are. We’d love to repay them for what they are putting into the club, the hours in the season supporting the team.

“We have an extreme, diverse group of players from all over the world, so we’re extremely grateful we can play at home as it brings out the best in us.

“We’re a very abrasive team at home and it’s one thing we have developed over the season, something a lot of people wouldn’t give us a lot of credit for in the past. We have become really abrasive and that comes through at home.”

Nearing the end of his fifth season at the club after joining from Northampton, van Velze signed up last December for a couple of more years with a team he hopes can soon live up to its promise. “I’ve enjoyed working here. I have relished the challenges we have had and the things we have had to overcome the past few seasons. I’ve settled in and the club has got extreme potential.

“We haven’t reached anywhere close to that potential yet. We have got a good academy that brings through a lot of youngsters, the likes of Ted Hill. That is very exciting for the future. We can’t dwell on the past – we haven’t had success. But we can’t dream about the future yet. There is a lot of work that needs to be done now in this season, so all of our focus is on that.”

GJ van Velze guides some youngsters from Wolverhampton RFC under-12s during their Gallagher Premiership Rugby Train with your Heroes event this week at Sixways (Photo by Phil Mingo/ppauk/Gallagher)

Wednesday night was a break in the weekly routine, an opportunity for some Warriors to stage a training session for the visiting Wolverhampton under-12s. It stirred some sweet memories in van Velze about his own days as a starry-eyed kid rubbing shoulders with the professionals of the day in Pretoria in his native South Africa.

“I went to a high school that’s just opposite Loftus Versfeld, so we would sneak classes to go and see the pros train. It was always a dream from a very young age. That era of the Bulls was very successful, so it was easy to find a role model within them,” he said, going on to highlight the importance of the modern day professionals being an approachable, open book.

“The more we expose youngsters to quality coaching, to professional players and see what is actually possible, then the better for the game. This game needs to grow and we can’t stagnate because otherwise we’re going to fall behind. Whenever we have got the opportunity to work with kids and inspire kids we should take it with both hands.”

Now 31 and on the go in the senior ranks since a Vodacom Cup debut in March 2008, van Velze is fully appreciative of the opportunities he has had at home on the Super Rugby scene and in the English Premiership.

Bristol’s Nick Fenton-Wells fights with Worcester’s GJ van Velze in the Premiership last October (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

There was a time when he took it for granted, but an innocuous collision with Saracens’ Michael Rhodes in September 2016 knocked him out for the whole season and that career-threatening fright highlighted the fragility of his profession.

“I’d a very unique experience,” he recalled. “I never had brain trauma, trauma to the brain tissue which you would think about with a concussion. I damaged my ear canal which gave me problems in balancing. To explain it in layman’s terms, it was like a vertigo which gave me symptoms that were concussion related.

“It took us just over three months to diagnose what the problem was. I got told to just stay home and rest, which was probably the worst thing I could have done because you don’t get better, you only get worse. But I’m grateful for what it [that injury] has done to me.

GJ van Velze, the Worcester captain, lifts the trophy after their victory in the 2015 Greene King IPA Championship final versus Bristol (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“It put things in perspective a little bit. It was the first time I went through a long-term injury. Before, the longest I’d been out was 12 weeks so in a career where I’m now 31, to have gone through until 29 without any long-term injuries, I was very lucky.

“I probably in a way got a bit complacent. Complacent with the game, complacent with how fortunate we are playing the game, so when you spend those long times on the sideline and you’re not sure you’re going to play again, you’re extremely grateful when the opportunity comes again. I’ve enjoyed every moment of it and played some of my best rugby last year which was fun.”

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Our story • Graham Smith and Gerrit-Jan van Velze met for the first time in a local pub in the village of Harlestone, Northamptonshire. • Mr Graham Smith comes from a long line of British artisans. Originally making their name as coach builders the Smith family were renowned for their master craftsmanship. Mr Smith’s eye for meticulous detailing ensures that the finest quality is laced through every pair of boots made at Van Velze & Smith. • Mr Gerrit-Jan is of dutch heritage but South African born and makes a living as a professional rugby player. Einstein believed that the only source of knowledge is experience and with that in mind GJ made the decision to move to Northamptonshire, England, in order to pursue his dream. • On 12 October 2012 Mr Smith and Mr van Velze stumbled across each other in the professed shoe capital of the world, Northamptonshire. Mr Smith was unconvinced by GJ’s choice of clothing, he was more impressed with his choice of footwear and thus a budding conversation ensued. • The rest, as they say, is history. • Mr Smith, a master craftsman and Mr van Velze, a person who believes life is about making memories. • The only thing left to do was to start making the boots ????

A post shared by GJVANVELZE (@gjvanvelze) on

In the meantime, his preparation for the rugby afterlife continues apace with his shoe-making (Van Velze and Smith Superior Leather) and lamb farming (Little Pretoria) businesses. “When you’re injured it definitely emphasises the fact rugby can get taken away from you. We’re very fortunate at Worcester with player development but if you can take any club as a model, Saracens have hit the nail on the head in terms of players developing outside of rugby and the importance of having a balance in your life.

“I’ve had the fortunate event of going into two businesses which I’m really enjoying and learning a hell of a lot. I definitely don’t know everything about it. I’m still making quite a lot of mistakes but I’m happy with that, happy to learn as we go.”

Learning on the go just like Worcester on the pitch.

Worcester Warriors held a training session on Wednesday night for Wolverhampton under-12s after they won a Gallagher Premiership Rugby Train with your Heroes session (Photo by Phil Mingo/ppauk/Gallagher)

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'We have never not thought about being in the Premiership... but we haven't reached our extreme potential'