Griquas’ coach is a man with a plan

Described as a machine because of his work ethic and the long hours he puts in, Brent Janse van Rensburg has a knack for leading unfancied rugby teams to glory.

When he finally acquiesced to being interviewed, Griquas coach Brent Janse van Rensburg did so by WhatsApp – when he had finished work for the day at 1.41am. So packed was his schedule ahead of his team’s Currie Cup opener against the Sharks on 12 July that the initial appointed time for the chat came and went, as did the two other windows he subsequently opened. 

Then he found out the story was about him, triggering an anxious round of texting:

6.46pm: “You must know ahead of time I don’t like personal stories.”
6.46pm: “… And I keep my personal life to myself.”
6.47pm: “… Was pretty surprised when you said it is a profile on me.”
6.47pm: “I like to focus on the team and not myself.”
6.47pm: “… Thus I’m not overly excited about the brief.”
6.48pm: “I don’t coach a one-man band style.”
6.48pm: “And I don’t like talking about myself in the media.”
6.48pm: “It is about the team.”

In case the penny hasn’t dropped from that one-sided volley of texts: you can talk to Janse van Rensburg about anything, as long as it’s not about him. But if the back-to-back SuperSport Rugby Challenge-winning coach of the past two years – with the Pumas and the Griquas – intends to keep on ambushing Super Rugby juggernauts like the Sharks, as his side did in the Currie Cup opener, he may have to get comfortable with the idea of people wanting their fill of this coaching “upstart”.

Griquas beat the Sharks 37-13. Notably, 18 of the 23-man Sharks squad played Super Rugby this year and four of them, including 2007 Rugby World Cup winner JP Pietersen, were Springboks. Yet they were comprehensively outclassed by the “country bumpkins” from Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

Legendary work ethic

There’s a temptation to suggest that the Sharks tripped themselves up, as opposed to lost to the better side. But Griquas outworked and out-thought them very much in the image of their coach, whose legendary work ethic and unquenchable thirst for knowledge and self-improvement are spoken of in reverential tones.

In describing the 38-year-old, one of Janse van Rensburg’s colleagues in the Griquas management team spoke of “a machine” who put in regular 18-hour shifts and the kind of intensive research on every aspect of the squad that led him to suggest that “sometimes we know the players better than they know themselves”.

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Blue Bulls director of rugby Alan Zondagh was Janse van Rensburg’s mentor at Zondagh’s Rugby Performance Centre in Riebeek West in the Western Cape when Janse van Rensburg started out as a young coach, his experience limited to school and Craven Week rugby. Zondagh confirmed the younger man’s capacity for hard work.

“He’s an incredibly hard worker, he’s very dedicated to being a top coach,” said Zondagh. “He’s very meticulous and his work ethic is second to none, he really puts in the hours. As a guy he’s very serious, maybe too serious, but that’s the way he is. 

“He is so dedicated to what he wants to do that I think sometimes he misses the fun part of it. He’s very intense. His main asset is his preparation, he really prepares well. He knows how he wants to play the opposition.”

Janse van Rensburg said the long hours he puts in are par for the bleary-eyed course: “Coaching is a grind, most people think it’s all about the whistle and working in the sun, but a lot of the work is off the field. It’s behind-the-scenes work and planning.

“A lot of the Super Rugby franchises are blessed with a lot of coaching staff. We’ve got a two-man coaching team [Janse van Rensburg’s assistant is former Sharks and Bulls scrumhalf Scott Mathie], which results in long days at Griquas because we don’t have the defence coach, forwards coach, a backline guy and all the extra staff.

“Because we’ve got one conditioning guy and one physio, everybody gives more than their pound of flesh and everyone pulls pretty long hours. But it’s about the team and the players, because we have a responsibility to them and to give our best to them.”

An early start

Like all self-respecting ex-players, Janse van Rensburg – an inside centre and sometime winger for Westering High in his native Port Elizabeth, and the University of Stellenbosch – had ambitions of taking his rugby as far as possible until a troublesome shoulder simply refused to cooperate.

“I always enjoyed the camaraderie that goes with the game and the culture within it … but I had all these injuries and I got four shoulder reconstructions. Every time I had an injury I helped out with coaching, that’s how I got involved and expressed myself with coaching. Eventually the bug bit…”

Janse van Rensburg’s coaching career began at 21, starting at schools level, taking in the Craven Week (with the Border Bulldogs), the Varsity Cup (with then Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University), the Boland Cavaliers, the Lions, the Eastern Province Kings and the Pumas along the way.

Talk about a weak shoulder paving the way for a career based on putting the shoulder to the grindstone.

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According to Zondagh, Janse van Rensburg was eager to learn even before one could officially call him a coach: “When he was still at school, he flew down to my academy specifically to sit with me for I don’t know how many hours, asking me: ‘How do you do this, how would you do that?’ until the early hours of the morning.

“He tries to learn from other people, make contact and build up a network, and that’s how most coaches should do it.”

Janse van Rensburg says his growth as a coach was hastened by coaching Queen’s College in Queenstown by day and helping the Border Bulldogs by night in East London, making the two-hour trip between the two towns after each session. Candidly, he admits to being a coach groupie as well as an information nerd.

“I’d definitely say Alan and [Lions coach] Swys [de Bruin] are mentors and I have a lot of respect for someone like [New England Patriots coach] Bill Belichick, I’ve read a lot of books on what he’s done. I read a lot, whether it’s high performance or leadership books, to try and figure out how other guys do things.

“You have to continue challenging yourself to be on top of things and innovative, trying to outsmart the opposition. A lot of detail goes into it and you’re learning the whole time. I like the mental stimulation.”

(Harsh) lessons learned

But the biggest lessons Janse van Rensburg learnt were not the ones he sought, they were the ones that found him. A few times in his career, he has had to resign from jobs he liked but had no choice other than to leave.

Two of those were the EP Kings, where the union ran out of money and couldn’t pay the players for months on end, and the Boland Cavaliers, where he followed his mentor Zondagh out of the door after the older man cited political interference as his reason for leaving.

“I’ve been exposed to fighting through a lot of difficult situations and having to learn lessons and trying to keep it together. As tough as it was, it definitely developed a capacity in me for a thick skin, not to get worked up with stressful stuff in rugby, keep a level head and focus on solutions.”

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Having coached in the relative backwaters of South African rugby, the former mathematical literacy, computers and geography teacher has had to rely on what he calls solutions-based rugby. As he puts it, “there will always be challenges, the important thing is to come up with solutions”.

Consequently, wherever he has been, the teams have either punched above their weight by being surprisingly competitive, or shocked all and sundry by winning games or titles they probably shouldn’t have.

Some of the cases in point include his Border Bulldogs stint, which saw him emerge with a Craven Week record of eight wins out of nine games; a 2014 Grey High team – “the best schoolboy team I ever coached” – that beat Grey College for the first time in a decade with talents like Curwin Bosch, Junior Pokomela and Keanu Vers; winning the 2018 SuperSport Rugby Challenge unbeaten with the Pumas; and bringing the same trophy to the Griquas for the first time in their third successive final.

Not in it for trophies

Yet for all that achievement – he still thinks the strength of the Super Rugby teams in the Currie Cup is such that Griquas’ more than encouraging start against the Sharks doesn’t mean they are title contenders – Janse van Rensburg says he does not coach to win trophies.

“It’s quite simple,” he said. “If you get consumed by the pressure of the job and the outcome all the time, you lose the human factor with your staff and your players. Being worked up all the time about winning has a negative ripple effect on the whole programme and the morale of the staff.

“Everyone wants to win when they get on the field, but if you worry about the outcomes it clouds your judgement and the players see it and ultimately that suffocates you, and come Saturday, you choke. [New Zealand coach] Steve Hansen says worry is a wasted emotion. Rather have a plan.”

The Sharks know all about that plan, and any other South African rugby superpower caught dozing will know it soon enough.

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