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'I can never be Kwagga'

FEATURE: He has the same Sevens pedigree, but admits he may not be up to par in the 15-a-side code just yet.

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Sub-100kg loose forward JC Pretorius punches well above his weight in the United Rugby Championship, right on brand for the overachieving Lions.

Pretorius produced a Man of the Match performance against Cardiff to help keep the Lions on the trail of a first URC play-off appearance.

The openside flank terrorised Cardiff at the breakdowns, winning multiple turnovers and turnover penalties, while carrying the ball strongly to get his side across the gainline.

The result saw the Lions keep alive their dreams of qualifying for the play-off rounds, with just four points separating them from eighth-placed Benetton with two rounds to play.

At just 1.8m and 92kg, Pretorius is smaller than most midfielders in the league, but the former Springbok Sevens star is used to proving his doubters wrong.

Labelled at school as being too small to make it in the professional ranks, and having to fight injuries every step of the way, Pretorius has had to scrap to reach this point of his professional career.

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Pretorius has found a home at Ellis Park, with a team that is no stranger to backing the underdog.

The Lions unearthed a future two-time world champion in Kwagga Smith, among a host of other off-the-radar players who starred under former coach Johan Ackermann.

Smith first caught the eye as a relentless competitor for the BlitzBoks and Pretorius has walked the same path, starring on the Sevens Series circuit.

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“We are from the same school, play the same position and I always tried to play the way he does, by bringing a huge work rate to the game,” Pretorius said about the comparisons to Smith.

“There is nothing wrong with trying to emulate him but I can never be Kwagga, only JC.

“I have always been a hard worker and I hope to be judged on that work rate and energy.”

Born and raised in the mining town of Secunda in the Mpumalanga province, 131km from his current home turf at Ellis Park, young Pretorius’ dreams of being a rugby player took flight at HTS Middelburg, one of the most famed schools in the province.

Incidentally, this also happened to be Smith’s alma mater, but like Smith, Pretorius was told that he would be too small to break into the professional 15-a-side game.

Just as it seemed that prediction would come true for Pretorius, who had no offers from any of the provincial unions, a bolt from the blue came with an invite to the Springbok Sevens Academy.

Three years after joining the academy, Pretorius made his Series debut in February 2019, just four days after his 21st birthday.

“Making that transition wasn’t easy and it got even tougher when I started practising with the BlitzBoks,” Pretorius revealed.

“From the day I arrived in Stellenbosch in 2016, I puked [vomited] every Monday for years until my body was finally used to the drills.

“It didn’t matter if I trained with the academy, the BlitzBoks or if they trained together, I was sick every Monday.

“They used to leave two doors open in case someone had to run out when he felt sick.”

However, Pretorius fought through his early struggles and became a first-team regular during Neil Powell’s final few years with the BlitzBoks, earning the 2022 Springbok Sevens Player of the Year award along the way.

Just months after Powell left the BlitzBoks to take charge of the Sharks, Pretorius followed his mentor into the United Rugby Championship, signing with the Lions in December 2022.

Pretorius once again had to be patient for his opportunity, making his tournament debut against Benetton in Round Three.

“Some guys do the running and sidestepping, I do more of the stealing. Wherever I can make a contribution to the team and lift the energy, I will do that,” Pretorius said.

“One thing that I’ve learned since I arrived from the sevens team. I was playing a lot in the sevens team, but when I got here, I only played here and there. I had to be patient and keep working hard.

“It’s one of those environments where you can’t get comfortable in your position. Week in and week out, you have to give your best for the team.”

Now with 19 appearances for the Lions under his belt, Pretorius has found his place with the Pride and is determined to be part of a historic run into the URC play-offs.

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