Springbok and Lions centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg’s life off the field makes his rugby achievements even more remarkable.
Rohan Janse van Rensburg has quickly become a household name among the South African rugby fraternity after making his breakthrough at the Lions.
He’s recognised as one of the top centres in Super Rugby. His early impressive form earned him the MyPlayers Player of the Month award in February, which is a prestigious accolade as the decision was voted by all professional rugby players in South Africa. The 22-year-old was nominated among the likes of Stormers captain Siya Kolisi, Cheetahs flyhalf Fred Zeilinga and Springbok Sevens duo Seabelo Senatla and Chrisy Dry.
However, it was Janse van Rensburg’s rise to prominence over the past two seasons that earned him collective respect from players and fans alike. After a string of stellar performances during Super Rugby and the Currie Cup in 2016, he was rewarded with a Springbok call-up for the friendly match against the Barbarians in London last November.
Scheduled to return home following the game, Springbok head coach Allister Coetzee decided to retain the young centre in his squad as an injury replacement for utility back Jesse Kriel, who suffered a leg injury. This decision was made after Janse van Rensburg delivered an impressive individual display against the Barbarians, which included a late try that salvaged a 31-31 draw against the famous club.
The player can still recall those highlight moments on tour, which he described as a “dream come true”.
“I still remember when and how I got the news from coach Allister. I was in my room at the team hotel when he came to speak to me. He said he was very impressed with what he’s seen so far and he wants to me stay for the entire tour. When he left the room, I could feel the tears in my eyes. My dream had come true,” Janse van Rensburg told MyPlayers. “I learned so much over short space of time while training and playing alongside some of the best players in the world. I went on to make my Test debut against Wales. It was not the ideal result, but it was a very special game for me. I was proud to become a Springbok and represent my country, and I hope to play many more Tests.”
The tears Janse van Rensburg describes represented the joy following a tough journey during his professional career.
In rugby terms, his achievements didn’t come easy. When he first arrived in Johannesburg, he showed the necessary patience to gradually play his way into the senior team. This saw him feature more regularly among the Lions U21s. He was later named Lions U21 Back of the Year in his first season before cementing his spot in the senior squad.
It was a positive start to a new career chapter after a disappointing end to life at the Bulls, which also almost saw him consider an early retirement.
“I really appreciated all the lessons learned and friendships made at the Bulls. But I found myself stuck in a space where I wasn’t happy mentally. The harder I worked on the field, the worse it became. It got to a point where I seriously thought of giving up on a sport as I didn’t enjoy myself anymore,” says Janse van Rensburg,
“I saw the move to the Lions as an opportunity for a fresh start. When the new deal was confirmed, some people didn’t see it as a positive switch because the Lions were going through a tough transition at the time. They just went a year without Super Rugby, so there were many unknowns and doubts around their potential to reestablish themselves. But I remember chatting to coach Akkers [Johan Ackermann] about his vision for the union. He got every player to buy into his plan and that has made such a positive difference from day one. We quickly grew into a squad of brothers. There was a great vibe among everybody involved at the Lions, which has been the secret to our success.”
While he worked through his rugby dilemmas, it was off the field where Janse van Rensburg was hit the hardest. In March, he received the devastating news that his mother passed away after a long-term battle against cancer.
“It’s something that still hurts today and will probably hurt for a very long time. There are days when I pick up my phone and I want to call her, but I have to remind myself that she’s not there to answer anymore,” explains Janse van Rensburg. “My mother played such an influential role in my life. She was my hero.
“When she was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago, she wasn’t able to attend any of my rugby games because her immune system was very weak. In fact, the doctors only gave her four years to live, but she was still determined to live a normal life. She’d dedicate time to drive me to training and make sure I followed the right diet.
“Without her help and support since I was a schoolboy, I’d never achieve my dreams of becoming a professional rugby player. That’s why I decided to play in the week of her passing… to dedicate the match against the Waratahs for her. It was such an emotional experience. I was so delighted to score two tries to help the Lions win the match in her name.”
Janse van Rensburg will continue to live his life in honour of his mother. He even has a new perspective on life as he hopes inspire more people during his journey.
Even after falling victim to a nightmare robbery and kidnapping incident, which also involved two others at his home in Johannesburg, and suffering a knee injury at a crucial stage of the season, he remains optimistic looking ahead.
“My mother’s proudest moment was the day she saw me play for the Springboks on TV. So when it comes to my rugby, I want to achieve much more on the field in her honour. I know she’s looking down on me from heaven, so I want to make her proud,” says Janse van Rensburg.
“I’ve been through some tough times this year, but I will continue doing what I can to move on and inspire others.
“I want my influence to extend beyond rugby… I want to make a good impact on the field too. I want to inspire more people, especially the youth, to chase their dream… the same way my mother backed me to pursue mine.”
By Gareth Duncan
– THE FIRST VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE FEATURED AS THE COVER STORY OF MYPLAYERS MAGAZINE ISSUE 5