Comfortable in the second row or at No 6, Ernst van Rhyn has outperformed even his own club's expectations of their new signing
Sale Sharks’ most recent South African signing, Ernst van Rhyn, has been flying — on and off the pitch — since making the move to England.
Back five forward van Rhyn has caught the eye this season with the Premiership leaders after joining from the Stormers on a three-year deal, but admits rugby was never his dream profession.
The 26-year-old has always aspired to take to the skies and is currently working towards achieving his pilot’s licence.
He said: “My bedroom when I was growing up was just full of planes; it is all I wanted to do, and it still is.
“Rugby wasn’t always an option, I was a bit of a late developer and it didn’t seem there would be a big future in rugby. Then I developed, got the opportunity to play, and then fell in love with rugby as well.
“But if I read any book, it’s all about aviation or something to do with aviation. I think it is the best thing in the world, but that is the dream to at least do that for a few years.”
While he waits to make that dream a reality, he has been a standout performer and key contributor to the Sharks’ fantastic early form in the Premiership season, winning six of their first seven games to take them to the top of the table.
The forward’s performances – after Round 7 he had racked up more tackles than any other player with 110 – have earned him plenty of plaudits from fans, pundits, and his director of rugby, Alex Sanderson.
Sanderson on South African Ernst van Rhyn
“We didn’t assume he would be this good,” explained Sanderson. “You talk about the tackle king; he has been to the most amount of rucks two or three times this year in the opening five games.
“It’s his stats all round. He was making offloads and breaks in the wide channels, so he is an exceptional player with unbelievable consistency and robustness. We are so lucky.”
Yet van Rhyn remains humble about his start with Sale. “I know it is still early days, but so far it has been great,” he said.
“I’m not the quickest guy or the biggest, and I don’t have a wild side step or something, so I’ve got to make up for that with some work rate. It is something I pride myself on. I don’t mind the dirty work.”
While he has looked at home in a Sharks jersey, he was not certain that Sale would be the destination to play his rugby this season following eight years with his local side in Cape Town.
The South African admits it took a bit of convincing to join last season’s Premiership runners-up but he was won over by his fellow countrymen and the boss. “I’ve been here once before for the 2016 Junior World Cup we played here. When I was here, I never considered that I would move to this city.
“Once I was keen to look at options abroad, Sale showed interest in me, and there was interest from another English club as well. There are quite a few South Africans here, and I spoke to some of them who I know pretty well, so that was a determining factor. But also, the feeling I got after a few calls I had with Alex (Sanderson).
“And then everything just fell into place to make the Sale move after all.”
Van Rhyn has taken to the Premiership with ease and it looks like he’s played here his whole life, but the brave decision to seek a fresh challenge in the northern hemisphere may never have come to pass if it wasn’t for the support of his significant other.
“My wife drives me to be the best version of myself,” explained van Rhyn. “I wasn’t keen on taking on the different country on my own, so once I had her by my side, I felt more calm, and it felt like the right time to go and change a bit.”
And since landing in Manchester, the couple have taken everything thrown at them in their stride. However, the pair never could never have predicted they would fall in love with the most mundane thing, trams.
Van Rhyn added: “We are really enjoying public transport. Once we got here, we actually spent the first two-and-a-half or three months without a car and it wasn’t a problem.”
And while Ernst van Rhyn was travelling to training on the tram and acclimatising to his new club, his wife embraced the quirkiness of charity shops. Upon her discovery of the Altrincham market, she soon found a love for places like the Salvation Army and bargain hunting.
He said: “For the first two months when we were moving into the house, every second day I’d come home from training, and she would have found something different. Obviously, you can pick up good things for decent prices. So, she’s been enjoying it.”
Van Rhyn managed to achieve a lot with the Stormers, including a URC title, although he would have preferred some more game time before choosing to divert his focus to evolving the Sharks.
He said: “Winning is not everything, but it is an important part of our job. On a personal level, it would be to make the most of the time I have here, grow as much as possible, and sort of make it a better place before one day when I leave.
“I want to take it a step further than last season and win the Premiership, and who knows how far we could go?”
No messing around then. But his ultimate goal in rugby is one that every young South African dreams of: to become a Springbok.
The Rainbow Nation has always been synonymous with the sport but cemented their place in the history books with a record fourth World Cup triumph in France earlier this year.
That success has been attributed to the fact that it is about more than just lifting the trophy for the Springboks, with the impact of their World Cup wins felt keenly at home. And van Rhyn believes the nature of South Africa itself has contributed to this success.
He said: “The biggest factor, though, I think, is the diversity and how it brings everyone together.
“We are a small country down in Africa, and some people think there are lions in the street and stuff, which there aren’t, but people might not expect as much from us.
“Obviously, South Africa has its challenges, so I think there are some hardships that drive people to really inspire, to be better, and to leave the team in a better place going forward. There is a lot of pride in that and bringing people together.”