Thursday 14 December 2017

Springbok Taute makes lasting impression ahead of Tiger hunt

Jaco Taute has quickly made his presence felt with Munster. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Jaco Taute has quickly made his presence felt with Munster. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Jaco Taute knew when he arrived he was always going to be a stranger to so many. That's why he told himself the connections he would make would have to be profound.

He was only ever going to be passing through but he always wanted to make an impression. Now, as we move closer to his departure date (January 1) and further away from that of his arrival (August 22), it is fair to say he has made quite the impression indeed.

"He has been tremendous for us," enthuses his South African counterpart Rassie Erasmus, "not just on the field but off the field as well. He has slotted in nicely. Apart from leadership, he is a good team man and the main thing he is playing good rugby."

This is the crucial point. The last South African we spoke to in Munster red, Gerhard van den Heever, was also a lovely man and good to animals and helped little old ladies across the road. But he stank out the joint when a ball was put in his hands.

Taute didn't have much time to be a slow-burner but he didn't immediately sizzle; yet in coming to boil just as Munster began their Champions Cup campaign, the 25-year-old has displayed all the powerful timing of a midfielder good enough to play for his country.

For all that, Taute often wishes that the strength of intimacy between player and supporters, as well as the dressing-room bond between the squad, had been forged in entirely different circumstances. That epochal afternoon against Glasgow seemed at once the beginning and the end of something special, glueing Munster together stronger than ever.

"It has and it's sad. You don't need something like that to happen. Axel (Foley) meant the world to this club and the club to him. And it has pulled us together even tighter."

The South African's second-half try that day, after a blizzard of attack, culminated in a defiant yawl, clutching his crest so fiercely, his hand almost pierced the fabric.

"That was the only way I could show some respect after what had happened," he explains. "I hadn't been here that long and it was important for me to show I cared about my team-mates and the tradition and history of Munster.


"By playing and showing emotion like that. I didn't know Axel very long, you must understand. So the only way you could actually show you care is by playing for your team and the crowd and this shirt."

The empathy is not fabricated.

Taute may only be passing through but he knew the history of this place and the history of the person the place had lost. A friend of his had travelled Europe more than a decade ago and returned with wide-eyed tales of Thomond.

So Munster became his team. He watched and whooped as Peter Stringer slipped down the blindside in Cardiff. He absorbed the impact that predecessors Trevor Halstead and good friend Jean de Villiers, alongside whom he made his international debut, had imported from home.

"Jean shared a lot of stories about Munster, it has a fond place in his heart. I was aware of their history. I always wanted to play for the club so this is like a small dream for me."

His other, bigger, dream was to play for South Africa and he has done so three times but not since Ireland here in 2012; too many injury nightmares have prevented him adding to that total.

He has suffered every known injury. And some unknown ones. Burst testicle? Check. Look away now.

"Luckily they saved it," he says. "They just stitch everything back together. I wasn't looking down! It was painful, not so much in the game. We didn't think it was too bad. But on Monday I needed to go to emergency surgery."

Injuries have taught him to appreciate everything he has. "It sounds weird but I'm grateful for because I learned a lot. Nobody ever wants to be injured. I missed a lot of games and opportunities. But I gained new perspective.

"I learned very young that these opportunities can be taken away from you instantly. I love every week. I see every game as my last and that is helping me.

"I feel part of the family and I've been greeted with open arms. I repay that by trying to play every game as if it is my last."

His last will be soon enough; he is only here to replace Francis Saili until the new year and Erasmus, who coached Taute with the Stormers, confirmed this week in one breath that the Kiwi is on track to return from injury just as Taute starts packing his bags for home.

"I was trying to find a player who brings some stability and experience, somebody who is still hungry, but also a Test player, because that is what we lost when Francis got injured," Erasmus explains.

"There is an aura about players like that and that is what we missed. When I saw him the first time he played full-back for South Africa, on the wing then in the inside-centre. So he is a very versatile player."

Paul O'Connell met Taute when he first arrived and, as is traditional among retired players, brought the new recruit for a Guinness in town.

Part of the family, even if only for the briefest time. "I've missed years of my career so I take it day by day, eating the elephant one bite a time."

Today, he will be hungrily hunting for Tiger.

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