The farm boy's off-kilter journey to the Final
SPOTLIGHT: It was a little more than five years ago that Willem Gerhardus Engelbrecht received the phone call that changed his life.
The 29-year-old loose forward, born in Pretoria and schooled at Hoërskool Die Wilgers, actually retired and took up farming after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to break into the professional game.
Yet, five capricious years later he will captain the Pumas in their first-ever Currie Cup Final.
The team from Nelspruit, formerly known as South Eastern Transvaal, will travel to Kimberley on Saturday to face Griquas in the biggest domestic game of the year.
However, this off-kilter journey is not about to end in Kimberley on Saturday.
Win or lose, one of his opponents will be come his teammates soon afterwards – as Engelbrecht and Griquas scrumhalf Stefan Ungerer have both signed contracts to join the Stormers in Cape Town.
The burly loose forward, Engelbrecht, and the bantam with a No.9 on his back, Ungerer, have been amigos for a long time.
Both have walked outré paths to the Currie Cup Final.
“We are good friends and he requested in a previous match that I should not be so rough with him,” Engelbrecht told @rugby365com.
“However, we both know, that if we wear different jerseys on the field we are ‘enemies’.
“That is the great thing about rugby. You make so many friends and not all of them are in your team.
“Most of the time those post-match chats are not even about rugby.”
To say that Engelbrecht’s journey from the leafy suburbs of Pretoria to Kimberley was ‘fascinating’ would be an understatement.
After a brief post-school stint in the Blue Bull system, he spent a season with the Falcons Under-21 team. That was followed by a season (2015) with the unheralded Limpopo Blue Bulls (formerly Far-Northern Transvaal) in a second-tier domestic competition.
“After that, I played some Sevens and there I fractured my jaw, which prompted me to retire,” Engelbrecht said – adding that he took up farming in the Lapalala wilderness area within the Waterberg Biosphere, Limpopo Province.
“During that farming stint, the call came from the Pumas for me to have a ‘trial’ in Nelspruit.
“It was on the advice of my [late] father that I gave it ‘one more’ go.
“And here we are, with a Currie Cup Final looming.”
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During the past year, he also had stints with the Lions Super Rugby team (without getting any game time) and then returned to the Pumas where he had – by his own account – an “average” run with the Nelspruit-based outfit.
“I lost my way a bit,” Engelbrecht told @rugby365com.
“Following my father’s death it gave me a new perspective on life,” he said of a period that saw his rugby elevated to another level.
During the Rainbow Cup in 2021, Engelbrecht was given a ‘trial’ with the Stormers and featured in five games, before was put on the Springboks’ PONI list.
“I was invited to the Springbok camp ahead of the British and Irish Lions series, before rejoining the Stormers for the start of the United Rugby Championship,” he told @rugby365com.
When the Currie Cup season kicked off in January, Engelbrecht returned to Nelspruit and on Saturday he will display his skill on the biggest domestic stage.
While he has not been invited back to another Bok training camp, Engelbrecht remained on the PONI list – patiently awaiting his big break.
He is bound to get a lot more airtime once he joins up with the Stormers and stays on the fringes of the Bok selection picture, but for now, his focus is on Saturday’s big Final.
The Cinderella Final will see the Pumas make the first appearance on the big stage, while Griquas will look to win the trophy for the fourth time – with the last time they drank celebratory champagne from the golden cup back in 1970.
He also took exception to the suggestion of Bulls coach Gert Smal, who wants the Currie Cup to be put away in a museum, because it is ‘devalued’.
“Just because it is two smaller unions in the Final, it doesn’t make it less prestigious.
“We got there by giving blood, sweat and tears since January. We worked hard and beat a quality Cheetahs team in the semifinal last week.”
Engelbrecht touched on the well-documented ‘lack of discipline’ that has cost the Pumas dearly – especially in their two defeats two Griquas in the league stages – as key in the Final.
“The errors and those silly penalties are things the individuals must take accountability for.
“It is not things we practice in training. It is each player’s own decision – to tackle high or tackle late.”