It isn’t quite clear why Jan Serfontein’s SA under-20 teammates nicknamed him “Rocky” during the IRB Junior World Championships last year, writes Brenden Nel on supersport.com.
It could have been a resemblance to the great fighter Rocky Balboa, or a compliment to his dedication, hard work and drive to get to the top.
But whatever it was, his teammates would start to hum the theme to the famous boxing movie whenever he would enter the team room.
It was a bit of good-natured ribbing from his peers, something that became a norm during the Junior Boks’ sweep to the World title and Serfontein being named the IRB Junior Player of the Year.
But what his teammates do remember was how shy he would get whenever they started to hum, almost embarrassed, and how he didn’t want the limelight to shine on him. How the team was more important than the individual and how he didn’t want his success to overshadow a true team effort.
It may be a bit of a story, probably inflated by his teammates at each telling, but it also gives a glance at Serfontein’s character – a person with a quiet, determined demeanour; somebody who is hungry to achieve his goals, but not at the expense of the team.
BOK CAP BECKONS
For someone who doesn’t seek the limelight, Serfontein will have it thrust upon him this weekend in Durban.
Named on the bench, he is set to achieve his latest – and greatest – goal and be capped as a Springbok.
And while Serfontein may make his presence known in no uncertain terms on the rugby field, off it he is shy and reserved, but as his family and friends point out – he is a determined and competitive character that sets his goals and goes for them, no matter how high they might seem.
His girlfriend Lani Scholtz, who is the daughter of former Western Province fullback Calla and a sporting personality in her own right as a rising tennis star, tells of a list she found in Serfontein’s room one day, which set out his goals for the immediate future.
“One of the goals was to become a Springbok this year. My first thought was ‘Ok, that’s setting it very high’ but that is the type of guy Jan is, he sets himself goals and nothing will stop him from achieving them,” Scholtz explained to supersport.com.
His brother Willem, who plays lock for the Pumas, echoes this.
“The one thing people don’t realise about Jan is that he is mentally strong. Because he is so quiet, people underestimate him,” Willem says.
“He is mentally stronger than anyone I know. He isn’t someone to talk big, but he sits and analyses things over and over again, and once he has taken a decision, there is no way he will stop until he achieves his goal. He told himself he will be a Springbok, and he took that decision. That is what drives him.”
Click on the image below to see, in pictures, how Jan Serfontein's career progressed to date:
It isn’t surprising then that Serfontein comes from rugby stock. His great-grandfather Jack Slater played for the Springboks in the 1920s while his father Jan (Boelie) Serfontein had more than 100 caps for Eastern Province. His brother Willem is a regular for the Pumas so rugby runs deep through the family’s veins.
But from his young schooldays Jan was something special. The Blue Bulls identified him while he was still in Grade 9 and decided they wanted him even though he had four years of school left. Then Bulls High Performance manager Ian Schwartz, who now serves as the Springbok manager, admits that even then they knew he would become a Springbok.
His exploits for Grey High in Port Elizabeth and later Grey College in Bloemfontein are part of school folklore, while he really caught the eye in 2011 at the Craven Week when he scored two tries – including the winning touchdown – as a hopelessly outgunned Free State side came back and beat a strong Blue Bulls side.
Serfontein owes much of his ability to thrive to his family life, where he was forever competing against his brothers in backyard sport, and had to learn to rise above his age at times if he wanted to play at the same level.
“Both I and my other brother used to invite friends over to play sport on Sunday in the yard and Jan always wanted to play along, whether it be rugby, cricket or tennis. But being older we bullied him a bit, and my father told him that if he wanted to play along, he needed to man-up,” Willem remembers.
“It was typical big brother stuff. But it made him stronger, and he learnt to compete against us. When he went back to his age-group at school, he was dominating his peers there and he gained confidence.”
And from that confidence he started believing in himself, and with his quiet brand of determination, it became hard to miss Serfontein any time he would take the field.
“I think it is only a blessing,” Serfontein told the Sunday Times of his family's deep rugby roots.
“I didn't ask for the talent, you get born with it. I'm really privileged to be filling those shoes. But talent has to be accompanied by hard work. A lot of guys are born with talent but you can't assume you are going to play at the highest level,” he said.
Serfontein flourished during his school career and excelled in rugby, cricket and tennis. He made the national junior tennis squad at the age of 12 and played in a junior tennis tournament overseas before he was a teenager. It was clear he wasn’t your average sportsman.
“He became the go-to guy at school level. No matter what the sport, his teammates would always know he would rise to the challenge,” father Boelie remembers.
“He was always the man for the moment. Even when we were playing in the back yard, his brothers and I would argue about a decision and Jan would steal the ball and score the try before we could react.
“He liked taking the responsibility, taking the moment and trying to win the match. There will be games in the future that he will lose, but it won’t be because he didn’t back himself to try something.”
DANIE GERBER COMPARISON
It is no secret that Serfontein has been compared to the great Danie Gerber in his style of play. Serfontein has modelled his play on Gerber, and received much encouragement from his father Boelie, a former teammate of Gerber’s.
But just as the family feels it is unfair to compare Serfontein to such a rugby great, they understand that Jan has always wanted to carve out his own legacy.
“When we used to play sport in the backyard,” Willem remembers, “we always used to choose famous players to be. If we played cricket, I would be Jacques Kallis and my other brother would be Shaun Pollock. But every time we asked Jan, he would simply say, I’m Jan Serfontein.
“He was small, and although the guys were his heroes, he never wanted to be them. He wanted to be himself. He always knew who Danie Gerber was, although he never saw him play. My father had a DVD of his games and Jan used to watch that all the time.
“My father always used to talk of Danie Gerber as the king of centres. He used to tell Jan, look at Danie’s support play that made him so good. Or the fact he runs with the ball in either hand. He studied those videos all the time and it’s not that he wanted to be the next Danie Gerber, he just based his game on him.”
Away from the field, Serfontein remains a very private person. Someone who, according to his girlfriend, has “the kindest heart of anyone I know” and who shows a selfless side whenever possible.
“He often would take his lunch when it was given to the players at the field and give it to a homeless guy at the traffic lights. He never made a big deal of it, he always tries to think of others,” Lani added.
“He is a guy who knows where he is going,” his brother Willem adds. “He is a big Christian who lives his life according to principles. God is always first in his life and he does his best to live his talent as best he can.”
His compulsion for neatness is something his teammates remember, as schoolmate and midfield partner Dries Swanepoel reminded us from France.
“Jan is very quiet, and he’s always neat. He likes things to be in their place. I’m the opposite and while I always keep my side of the room clean, I’m not worried that everything is precisely in its place. But that’s him, and how he is,” Van Schalkwyk jokes.
The quiet determination that flows through every conversation about Serfontein makes him primed for success when he finally pulls on the Green and Gold, and if his history is anything to go by it is not a jersey he will give up easily.
“It has been a dream my entire life to pull that jersey over my head. That is the thing I look forward to most. That's what drives me.”
With the World Cup just two years away, that determination could be the Springboks’ greatest asset over the next few years.
And Serfontein could be the catalyst that sends the Boks on the road to glory.
||Grey High, PE
/ Grey College, Bloemfontein|