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FEATURE Ernst van Rhyn: 'I was a late bloomer in rugby, flying planes is my passion'

Ernst van Rhyn: 'I was a late bloomer in rugby, flying planes is my passion'
2 days ago

As a boy in the Cape Winelands of South Africa, Ernst van Rhyn’s room was filled with planes. Model aircraft on the shelves, posters covering nearly every square inch of the walls. For almost as long as the hulking Sale Shark can remember, patrolling the skies has been his dream. So much so that alongside a burgeoning professional rugby career, he is close to obtaining his private pilot licence.

“In rugby I was a late bloomer, it didn’t look like I had the potential to make it,” the back-row reflects. “I couldn’t wait to finish school to pursue that goal of being a pilot.

“I was exposed to flying from a young age. When I was three, my dad moved to China for work so the whole family went over – I’m one of four brothers. We lived in China for a year, then back in South Africa for a year, then three-and-a-half years in Lagos, Nigeria.

Ernst van Rhyn has made a fine start to life in England as part of the Sale Sharks pack (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

“When we first went to China, something that stuck with me was getting to go to the cockpit in-flight and the pilot explaining everything, what the buttons do, and me and my eldest brother just staring at everything. That triggered something.

“The idea behind flying, getting on a plane and flying for 15 hours to the other side of the world at 40,000 feet. There is something about that which doesn’t make sense, or is just fascinating. Some people say it’s being a glorified bus driver. I don’t agree with that. It’s a passion.”

There’s a pained metaphor here about flying on and off the pitch, but let’s just say Van Rhyn has soared since fetching up in Manchester. South African snarl is baked into the club’s recent history, even as more precocious young locals change the blend of the squad.

For most of the year, Van Rhyn was the Premiership’s undisputed tackle machine and despite mid-season injury, he remains second in the chart only to Harlequins ‘Clamp’ Will Evans. He smashes an inordinate volume of rucks, carries like a beast, and has shown neat flourishes of footballing skill. Within a few months of arriving in England, he was elevated to the Sharks leadership group.

He is an exceptional player with unbelievable consistency and robustness. We are so lucky.

Even Alex Sanderson, the Sale guru, had not realised quite how much bang he would get for his rand.

“We didn’t assume he would be this good,” Sanderson said back in December. “You talk about the tackle king; he has been to the most rucks two or three times this year in the opening five games.

“He was making offloads and breaks in the wide channels. He is an exceptional player with unbelievable consistency and robustness. We are so lucky.”

Earning plaudits from one of English rugby’s sharpest minds halfway across the world never seemed likely a decade ago. Yes, Van Rhyn was enrolled at Paarl Gymnasium, one of the most storied schools in South Africa. But a shot at the professional ranks felt light years away. He spent the bulk of his school days as a second-team battler gazing in awe at the Western Province giants cloaked in blue and white from the Newlands stands.

“I’m one of four brothers and our family all went to Newlands together, we’d braai before the game, I’d sit in the scholars stand and I’d idolise these players but I thought it wasn’t realistic for me to play at that level.

“I played B team at Under-14, U15 and U16 so it was not really working out. I was almost losing interest in rugby, playing just to have fun. I was a lot shorter, then suddenly I got height when I turned 16.

Van Rhyn skippered South Africa U20s at the age-grade global showpiece in Georgia during 2017 (Photo by Jan Kruger – World Rugby via Getty Images/World Rugby via Getty Images)

“My initial goal was just to play for the school first team. Paarl Gym is 160 years old with a big tradition. If I could just play one game for the first team I could at least wear the jersey. I worked hard towards that, trained extra in the mornings, and then when I was 17, played for the first team a year young – before my final year.”

Suddenly, people started taking notice of the blonde destroyer, turned briskly and compellingly from boy to man. Van Rhyn was shocked to be named captain of the Western Province side for Craven Week, the great confluence of schoolboy talent from across the Rainbow Nation. Province won the final 95-0 and Van Rhyn was anointed skipper of a South Africa Schools team featuring future world champion Damian Willemse and a whole raft of would-be internationals. Two years later he led the Junior Boks team who finished third at the 2017 World Championship. The career he thought would never be his crystallised before him.

“People backed me and took a gamble on me. It all happened really fast. I didn’t have an agent or anything. My first contract was a junior one directly out of school, my dad and I were figuring out, is this a good offer, trying to wing it. Stellenbosch University also offered me a bursary to play for them and study.

“Guys like Scarra Ntubeni, Frans Malherbe, I’d be sitting in the stand and thinking, jeez, these guys are so cool – now they are great friends. I’ve played with them, real legends like Deon Fourie who came back from France.”

I’m not the quickest guy, I don’t have the sidestep, I’m not the most destructive carrier – I define myself by how hard I work.

Van Rhyn spent five years in the Stormers senior squad. He played in and won the inaugural URC final in 2022, and was involved in Champions Cup knockout fixtures the following season. Sanderson liked what he saw. He found his man to fill the Jono Ross-shaped void in the Sale stable.

There’s a story about Van Rhyn which sums up his style. Early in the season, Sanderson set his players a challenge: in three months’ time, an imaginary headline will be written about each one of them – what would they like theirs to say?

“I know it’s a pretty bold statement but I wrote I wanted to be the hardest working player in the Premiership,” says Van Rhyn. “Briggsy [forwards coach Neil Briggs] keeps me accountable to that goal every week before we go out to play: ‘hardest worker in the Prem! Hardest worker in the Prem!’

“It’s a very general term, work rate. There are stats, working off the ball, but that is my x-factor. I’m not the quickest guy, I don’t have the sidestep, I’m not the most destructive carrier – I define myself by how hard I work. In a leadership role I also pull guys with me.

“I’ve got to be as fit as I can to be able to do that. More technically in the game a big thing for me is getting off the ground. Once you are on your feet you will work to get there, you will try and make the tackle.

“It’s about getting involvements and repeating those involvements over and over again, and limiting the mistakes in that. It’s something that drives me.”

With Van Rhyn fit again, Sale have come roaring back from a potentially ruinous mid-season slump. They went five games without victory and, until late April, had not won away from Salford since November.

Van Rhyn had a taste of English rugby last season when his Stormers side took on Exeter Chiefs in the Investec Champions Cup (Photo by Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Failing to make the play-offs would torpedo the arc of a club on the up; from a convincing semi-final loss in 2021 to an agonising defeat by Saracens in last year’s Twickenham showpiece. To keep their flickering hopes alive, Sale needed points. And they have plundered them. Four bonus-point wins on the bounce has propelled them into fourth spot. The black Sarries juggernaut stand in their path once more. On a bonkers final weekend with more permutations than the blackboard of a calculus class, the equation for Sale is stark: win at the StoneX, and they book their place in the big time.

“One of the owners said they have never won down there since they’ve had the club,” says Van Rhyn. “There is a big challenge in that but we have confidence in what we are building towards. It’s all or nothing. George Ford said it’s going to be like Test-match rugby, which is great. This is where we wanted to be four weeks ago. Not a lot of people gave us a chance, but it’s all in our hands now.”

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