Wednesday 29 January 2020

Veteran Springbok Terblanche aims to bow out in blaze of Ulster glory

Stefan Terblanche will be hoping to help Ulster reach the Heineken Cup final when he lines out against Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday week
Stefan Terblanche will be hoping to help Ulster reach the Heineken Cup final when he lines out against Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday week
David Kelly

David Kelly

He's nearly ready to let go now, at last. Only a few weeks now. His final fling. And then come summer, 37-year-old Stefan Terblanche will head for Bermuda as a fully paid up member of the South African Rugby Legends Association.

"I'm always saying one more year, just one more year," he smiles, languorously stretching an improbably healthy, sturdy frame in an easy-chair.

But before he can sail off into the sunset, there's still work to be done: as an honorary Ulsterman. A Heineken Cup winner's medal to bookend a remarkable career.

In one of those quirks of sporting fate, Terblanche has touched down on Irish soil just as Ulster are primed for their most serious assault on European domination since their triumph in 1999.

There are many who feel that he should not be here at all, such is the violent debate about provincial versus international rugby. Ironically, other factors almost prevented his arrival here.


It seemed that visa problems had thwarted his initial appearance on an emergency three-month loan, on the recommendation of former Sharks team-mate Johann Muller.

In fact, the pedantic requirements of UK immigration forced this well-spoken son of Mossel Bay in the Southern Cape to undertake a thorough examination of his ability to speak English.

"It was like being back at school. I had to have an interview with some guy. Luckily, he was a rugby supporter so I had a good chance," he says.

"Unfortunately, I played for the Sharks over there and he was a Western Province supporter.

"Although we got along well, I was afraid that he might fail me. But I got the results."

Since his arrival, he has discarded the image of the card-carrying rugby mercenary, merely eager to pick up the weekly cheque while barely dry from the post-match shower.

Terblanche wasn't a city boy so he has wallowed in the busy cocktail of urban life in Belfast.

Whether it is the Titanic exhibition or the paintings of renowned local artists Terry Bradley and Jim McDonald, he has let himself be defined by his surroundings.

He read Terry McAuley's poignant childhood memoirs, 'Paperboy', that, mirroring his own country's troubled history, allowed him to view his new surroundings though the prism of humanity, not politics.

"That's why I love it so much here," he enthuses.

"Because back home we don't get in taxis or on the bus, but where I live now, I jump on the bus and in five minutes I'm in the centre of town and can go and have a look at the local art exhibition.

"I'm reading a lot about Belfast and the Troubles. It just makes the city so much more interesting when you know a little bit about what's happened there in the past.

"The weather and all that is a big shock for my family. I've three kids, so for them to come here when they're used to going outside and jumping in the pool or running around, it's a little bit different.

"But there are other many positives around us about Northern Ireland and Belfast which I've really enjoyed. I always wanted to live in a city. In South Africa, you don't always get that opportunity to live in the centre of town because it's quite dangerous and people move out of town."

It's easy to see that the city has made an impregnable impression on him. Similarly, he has tried to reciprocate with his new team-mates. Ask any of them and they marvel at the manner in which Tereblanche has so durably maintained his strength and fitness.

It would be remiss to ignore the debate about the overseas influx into Ireland but the two-time Celtic League winner -- with Ospreys on a previous overseas stint (2003-07) -- appreciates the argument.

"I agree," he responds. "I don't think overseas players should stop or stifle the growth of your domestic game.

"Our role as overseas players is not just on the field, it's also off the field. It's good sometimes for the guys to see how we train (in the southern hemisphere), things we do differently, just different ideas about the game.

"I think if you look at Ulster now, all of a sudden, not only are we going through one of the best periods in Ulster rugby, but also there's a lot of growth and a lot of depth in the team. All of a sudden, there's competition within the team for places, and that brings out the best in any player.

"Some people are entitled to their own opinion, but I would like to leave here knowing that the full-backs and the wings that I played with, the young guys, are better players because of maybe something small they picked up from me, on or off the field."

Terblanche has always oozed class, from that sparkling debut against Ireland in Bloemfontein in 1998 when he ran the first four of 37 tries in 95 international appearances past a bemused Denis Hickie.

Typically, he recalls only the game's aftermath.

"It was my first Test match and Denis came to me after and gave me his jersey because we had played in the white jersey because of the Irish green. He said 'Congratulations, it is your first cap, here is my jersey, I don't want yours because I know you will want to keep it.'"

A year later, South Africa returned and Terblanche sought out debutant Girvan Dempsey in the Irish dressing-room to reciprocate Hickie's gesture.

Another grand, final gesture would be to help Ulster regain their Holy Grail.

"If I stop this year -- when I stop this year -- I will be very happy because I had a long career and injuries stayed away.

"I can get up in the morning and go for a run or play tennis with the kids without a sore body or broken bones."

He's counting the days. So little time. But still, he hopes, so much to do.

Irish Independent

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