Juan de Jongh startles the size queens

The Springbok and Wasps centre proves that bulk is not all that counts in the hurly-burly.

Twitter is a cesspool and an intellectual garbage heap. It’s a murky place littered with radical right-wing racists and uninspiring keyboard philosophers. But it’s not all bad.

Where else can sport fans engage intimately with athletes? Through social media, we’re able to peer behind the curtain and share previously restricted moments. Sure, most of the time we’re left with promotional plugs or well-worn platitudes, but every so often, we’re offered a glimpse of an elite sport star’s humanity.

On 5 November, Juan de Jongh hinted at a possible insecurity on Twitter. “If size mattered, then why is the elephant not the king of the jungle?” asked the Springbok centre, who currently operates in midfield for the English Premiership outfit Wasps.

The question was accompanied by a clip from the movie Troy showing Brad Pitt’s Achilles getting ready for combat against a much larger warrior. De Jongh tagged his fellow pint-sized fleet-footers Gio Aplon and Cheslin Kolbe.

Taken in isolation, this tweet could easily be dismissed as a little Monday motivation for those professional rugby players who can sit comfortably on the team bus.

But this came just days after the 1.73m, 86kg Wasps winger Christian Wade criticised the English game’s obsession with size. “I have had it all through my career that maybe I was too small to play for England,” Wade told the BBC shortly after crossing the Atlantic to pursue a career in American football. It’s not just the English who like their rugby players big.

Dwarfed by giants

De Jongh, who is 1.76m tall and weighs in at 87kg, hasn’t played for the Springboks since the humiliating 15-57 defeat to the All Blacks in Durban in 2016. In that time, much larger, younger centres such as Jan Serfontein (1.88m, 97kg), Damian de Allende (1.89m, 101kg), Jesse Kriel (1.86m, 95kg) and Andre Esterhuizen (1.94m, 110kg) have outmuscled the 30-year-old and edged him further away from the green and gold.

Throw in the promising talents of Lukhanyo Am (1.86m, 93kg) and Rohan Janse van Rensburg (1.85m, 109kg), and it seems De Jongh finds himself in the shadow of giants.

“Every week [when] I play, I’m the smallest centre on the field,” De Jongh says. “One of the biggest mistakes I used to make was saying to myself: ‘Look how big that guy’s quad is. Look how big that guy’s bicep is.’ I don’t do that any more.”

De Jongh references New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie (1.75m, 83kg) as justification for his assertion that there is space at the elite table of world rugby for the little guys. “I’ve definitely matured now and I don’t let that bother me so much,” he says. “Besides, I’ve done all right for myself so far.”

He’s done a bit better than just that. Apart from three tries in 19 matches for the Springboks, De Jongh dotted down 38 times for Western Province and the Stormers in 156 appearances. While in Cape Town, he lifted the Currie Cup twice and returned from Rio in 2016 with an Olympic bronze medal around his neck after helping the Blitzbokke finish third.

He has also captained his beloved province, following in the footsteps of his hero Jean de Villiers, while winning plaudits for running dynamic lines and cutting down behemoth opponents with brave tackling and sharp technique.

From braai to barbecue

But stagnation began to creep into De Jongh’s mind as the weeks and months started to look the same. It was with this outlook that he welcomed an offer from the other side of the world.

“After a decade of Super Rugby everything can start to feel repetitive,” he says. “Eventually you know what’s coming and it’s hard to keep pushing yourself. It was always my dream to be a professional rugby player and I’ve worked damn hard to become one. I didn’t want to continue going through the motions.”

There weren’t many offers. “One or two,” he says. “But it didn’t matter. Once Wasps offered me a contract, I was always going to sign for them. I really couldn’t have thought of a better place to develop my game.”

De Jongh gushes about the club’s history, having won six Premiership titles and three European Cups. He makes several references to 2003 World Cup winner Lawrence Dallaglio, who ran out 227 times for Wasps. He speaks about a bond he’s formed with Elliot Daly, Lima Sopoaga and Jimmy Gopperth.

“I’ve made friends with guys from all over the world,” he says. “How incredible is that!”

De Jongh has a handful of South Africans to keep him company. The presence of Nizaam Carr, Ashley Johnson and Willie le Roux means that he is reminded of home from time to time. “It’s lekker being able to speak Afrikaans at training sometimes,” he says, even if he does now use the term “barbecue” instead of “braai”.

Cipriani a magician

De Jongh spends an extra amount of time speaking about the impact Danny Cipriani has made on his game. The mercurial, and controversial, fly-half was only a teammate for a season before he joined Johan Ackermann at Gloucester, but he left an indelible mark on De Jongh.

“I came here thinking I could play my natural game and attack the line and throw passes like I did back home,” De Jongh explains. “But the weather doesn’t allow that. I wondered how I would adjust and then I saw Danny do some magical things on the field. I realised I didn’t have to be conservative. I just had to pick my moments better. I’m absolutely a better player now than when I left South Africa.”

When he left, he did so believing his Springbok days were over. Back then, there was a 30-cap “rule”, excluding players who hadn’t reached the milestone from selection. Rassie Erasmus has since lifted the restriction.

“I’d love to play for the Springboks again,” De Jongh says. He’s certainly doing all the right things. He has produced a string of big performances for his club. Erasmus has already confessed that the diminutive playmaker has registered a sizeable blip on his radar.

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