Most former club rugby players quietly move on from the game, their energies directed at careers, alternative sports or simply family life.
Thankfully for the game, there is a rich vein of older members who have discovered differently.
A player’s on-field prowess has a short existence in the memory of the average fan, something he only discovers after his days on the pitch have passed. Some go into club administration, others team management of support. The ones who deserve the most recognition are those dedicated coaches, whose efforts are so misunderstood.
A coach who is no stranger to club rugby supporters is former False Bay RFC head coach, Johnno van der Walt. The Bergvliet High School Old Boy represented Villager RFC with aplomb before migrating up to Constantia in 2011, when he joined the Bay under then coach, Kevin Musikanth.
When Musikanth left to head up the UCT coaching team in 2013, False Bay placed their faith in Van der Walt and his teammate, Ryan “Slab” Williams. It was a massive gamble. Neither had coaching experience at that level, but their passion, commitment and obvious insight into the game won the trust of the Bay committee.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. In their 10 years at the helm, Van der Walt and Williams guided False Bay to two Super League A (SLA) titles, a Gold Cup championship and runners-up positions in both competitions. The duo deservedly took a break from coaching at the end of 2022 after securing their second SLA title.
Family time, business interests and participation in other sports were the mapped out plans for both… until higher honours came calling for Van der Walt.
If False Bay’s success had not already drawn attention to Van der Walt’s unique talent as a coach, his season at the helm of the WP amateur team surely did. He steered the union’s amateur team to victory in 2020, while still coaching the Bay no less.
Van der Walt’s success and obvious rugby intellect had seen him grow in the Western Province ranks, although not in any official capacity. In 2022 he was seconded into the WP under-20 set-up to assist as a discipline coach. While this was perhaps more experience than promise, his input and passion was undeniable and appointment as head coach of the Western Province under-21 team for the 2023 season followed.
Seven matches later, the age-group team bagged the under-21 Currie Cup title, remaining unbeaten in their seven-match campaign. The last time a WP under-21 team has gone through a season unbeaten was 10 years ago in 2013, while their last Currie Cup title at this level was in 2016, the year that John Dobson, Stormers head coach, was in charge.
“I am happy and chuffed for them all. Our franchise/club has been through a lot over the past few years. It was great to get some silverware for the U21 section which is hopefully a sign of more to come,” said Van der Walt.
The results reflect more than the score on the board. Western Province were the most transformed team in the competition this season, delivering the best defence and attack statistics.
Talent abounds in this province, in the player and coaching ranks. Like Dobson, how long before Van der Walt is seen on a higher coaching platform? Bergvliet High School will certainly cherish that day.
- Jon Harris is a member of False Bay Rugby Club.