24 June 2016 - Ruan Combrinck may have surprised many with his barn-storming entrance into test rugby last weekend,but, to those who know him, it was always on the cards.
The blond-haired farmboy from Vryheid announced his arrival on the test scene by bumping off Irish flyhalf Paddy Jackson with Lomu-esque ease, sparking a Springbok revival that was to see them rise from the dead to win the second test against the Irish and Combrinck grab a popular man-of-the-match award.
To those who know him this is the Combrinck they’ve known all their lives – hard, fast, determined and in-your-face. A perfectionist who isn’t satisfied with the ordinary. A player who demands the most of himself.
One who has lost the fear of failure, one who questions and interprets, all the while in his search to become the better player?
To understand why it has taken him so long to feel at home in the Green and Gold you need to understand Combrinck as a person. While many players are simply in the mould of following orders and hoping the game plan works, the Lions utility back is the complete opposite.
He questions, he chats and, when he has made up his mind, he goes 100 miles an hour to accomplish what he wants. Lions backline coach Swys de Bruin remembers how he was initially irritated by Combrinck’s approach when he arrived in Johannesburg.
“He just wouldn’t keep quiet on the training field,” De Bruin laughs, “So the one day I went up to him and said ‘I think your best position would be right back’. He looked puzzled and repeated ‘right back?’. ‘Right back in the changeroom’ I answered.
“It kept him quiet for a week or so, but soon he was back to himself again.”
And once Combrinck is understood, it is easy to see why he is such a popular guy with his peers. They talk about his character, his different way of seeing things. The questions he asks…
“One thing about Ruan is that he will always be the guy in a team session that will come up with the most interesting question,” Lions coach Johan Ackermann recalls.
“It will be a question that is both deep and serious, but also sometimes totally out of context and at a strange moment and would make the team laugh.
“That’s him, it’s his character, he is a very interesting person who will always challenge you with a question, but will also make a statement with a question that you won’t expect. It shows how seriously he takes the game.”
That questioning started a long time ago, back in the early days of his childhood on the family farm in Vryheid, where he spent hours honing his skills in a makeshift field in the sheep paddock where his father Cobus had erected rugby poles for him.
“He was a typical farmboy,” Cobus remembers. “But he always had ball sense. I remember when he was two years old I threw a ball for him to hit and he missed. He missed around 10 times, but after that he never missed.
“I thought that was normal for kids, but it was clear he had ball sense way back then.”
His keen eye for detail saw him quickly help around the farm as a child.
“He always had a keen eye for detail,” Cobus adds. “He would always point out something as we drove on the farm - a sheep or cow that needed attention, or would always be the first to pick up something on the floor. If we drove at night, he would always see the animals first. It filtered through to his game. It never took him more than five minutes to sum up the opposition at school, their weaknesses and strengths.”
Blessed with a supportive family with his father never having missed a rugby game, Combrinck quickly found his love for the oval ball. He excelled at primary school and was quickly the try-scoring hero, catching the eye of Michaelhouse, who gave him a bursary to attend the prestigious school.
“Two things stick out in my mind. One was a day at Bulletjie rugby when a coach approached Ruan and told him he would be a Springbok one day, and the other when he was ill but decided to try and play for his school team. When he arrived the kids were moping about but when they saw him, they immediately jumped up and said ‘Yay, now we are going to win’,” Cobus remembers.
Combrinck had a happy childhood, with many afternoons spent “scrumming” his pet 800kg Ox called Morris. But his father laughs at his greatest fear – Father Christmas.
“It was one of the funniest things out. Here he wasn’t scared of this giant ox, and would spend a lot of time with the animal, playing and scrumming against it but if Father Christmas came around, he would hide in the bakkie, and wouldn’t come out to get his presents.”
Combrinck would spend hours competing against himself in the sheep paddock, hosting his own competitions with his left and right boot to see which was better and honing the skills that have made him a top player today.
At Michaelhouse he shined, ruling as the KZN hurdles champion from the ages of 11 to 17, as well as the javelin champ. But rugby always came first, no matter what.
As part of the Sharks schools ‘team of the decade’ during his school career, Combrinck featured in a backline that included Pat Lambie at fullback, Bok Sevens flyer Mark Richards on the one wing and the twins Guy and Ross Cronje as the halfbacks. It set him up for a career that would first be stunted before it finally took off at the Lions.
His junior days were not the best, with his inquisitive nature often getting him on the wrong side of coaches. Disillusioned and down he considered giving up the game before a call came in from Nico Serfontein, one of the best spotters of junior talent who works at SA Rugby. Serfontein wanted to know if he was interested in going to the Lions, and, as his family remembers, Combrinck was so excited he couldn’t sit still.
His start at the Lions was difficult, and Combrinck struggled initially with life in Johannesburg and the new surroundings. He survived two near-death experiences, as he wrote off two cars in accidents a few months apart. On both occasions the results could have been very different and he was lucky.
And then a change came, noticeable to his team-mates, as Combrinck upped the ante and committed himself to his rugby. Suddenly the focus was more intense, more apparent as he set himself new targets and changed his mind-set, and honed his focus.
One of the first to notice it was his fellow Natalian Warren Whiteley, who laughs when he calls Combrinck “a unique character”.
“We all know him as a massive character, that is for sure. He is definitely an individual,” Whiteley laughs.
“We say he is very special, he is one of the special kids in our squad, he is really unique.
“The biggest thing with Ruan is that he made a massive mindshift probably about two years ago and became the ultimate athlete. You could see his intensity and training intent just started changing. He started getting really professional. He started working really hard in everything he did, his video work, his analysis.
“He is a massive character within our side and definitely one of those guys who has been through a lot. He has been through a lot of adversity, started in Natal, went to Cape Town and had some tough times there.
“He came back to the Lions, went through some tough times, I know he was in some major car accidents as well and had to battle his way through. He could easily have lost his life. That was quite tough and he managed to get through that.”
Combrinck’s uniqueness at the Lions is nowhere more apparent than his gym regime, where he trains apart from his team-mates by choice.
“He likes to gym by himself, which is quite funny. He waits until all of us are out of the gym in the afternoon and he will gym for an hour-and-a-half, two hours, by himself. He follows his own programme, but works extremely hard,” Whiteley explains, echoing sentiments of the coaching staff and team-mates who remarked on the same.
On Saturday Combrinck makes his first start in a Springbok jersey. It is a dream he has waited for his whole life. A dream few have been as determined to get to as he has.
But it is a dream he will not let go easily, making the most of every moment he has at the national team. Combrinck is now determined to make that shift up to be a Springbok for as long as he can, and to play as well as he can for his country as possible.
“It wasn’t the easiest road to get here. Whenever you have a dream and a vision in front of you and I believe that if you use your God-given talents, and have a positive mindset, God will put you in the perfect place in His perfect timing,” he explains.
“There is a big shift in mindset that I’ve had from the last few years to now. I believe it comes with age and maturity, and the grinding and hard work. You get to a stage – and I know this might sound rude – when you’re @$#* off for greatness. You’ve been working so hard for so many years and it doesn’t want to happen, it doesn’t want to happen.
“So suddenly when you get that breakthrough you just want to capitalise on that.”
And Combrinck showed just how he wanted to capitalise, with 40 minutes of astounding rugby at Ellis Park. The long road is not finished for Vryheid’s favourite son, and Combrinck isn’t finished either.
With the same determination and fire in the belly as last week still burning bright, Combrinck wants to make an indelible mark on the Bok team.
That perfectionism and determination is just what the Bok team need at the moment.