SP Marais has had a long and difficult journey to his current contract with the Stormers. He talks about the resilience he has learnt along the way.
By Mandy Collins*
Fullback SP Marais has worked for several of South Africa’s rugby unions before settling at the Stormers in January of this year. He’s moved a dozen times, won and lost contracts, and even retired from rugby when it looked like things were hopeless.
But he’s managed to pull himself out of a difficult situation, and has learnt several lessons about life and himself along the way.
I think people assume you have to have been a rugby star at school – but that’s not what happened with you.
At school I never played Craven Week or even first team. In my matric year, I was only in the second team. I had quite a few injuries that meant I missed Standard 9, 10 and my first year out of school. In matric I basically missed the entire year – I only played two matches.
In 2007 – I was a massive fan of Frans Steyn, and I heard he’d gone to this rugby academy in New Zealand, but unfortunately I didn’t qualify. So I went to Alan Zondagh’s Rugby Performance Centre (RPC) in Riebeek West, because you train like a pro there. I made it to the Currie Cup U19 team for Boland, but I broke my ankle, so that was the end of that.
In my second year, things were looking up. I made the Boland U21 Currie Cup team. I was offered opportunities to go to the Cheetahs or the Leopards, and I decided to go to the Leopards because of the exposure they could give me. So I moved to Potchefstroom, and in 2010 I played Currie Cup and Varsity Cup for their U21 team. It was a good year – I got a call to join the senior side for the promotion-relegation match, and that was my pro debut.
You did quite a bit of moving around then – can you tell us about that?
I got the opportunity to join the Kings for two years, or to go to the Cheetahs. I decided again to go with the smaller union, because I felt that game time was crucial. So at the end of 2010 I moved to Port Elizabeth and I was there for two and a half years, playing Currie Cup first division and Vodacom Cup.
In 2013 I played Super Rugby for the Southern Kings, and unfortunately at the end of the tournament, we lost to the Lions. I was given the opportunity to join the Sharks, and I felt the time was right to cement my future in SA Rugby in the Currie Cup competition. We won the Currie Cup in 2013, and I got to play three Currie Cup seasons and three Super Rugby seasons in my time there
However, my contract wasn’t renewed and I was looking for a job, and I was offered a place at the Kings, but when I got there, thanks to a huge amount of mismanagement, we were told that they couldn’t pay us. SARU took over administering the contracts, but there wasn’t one for me. I really felt like I was in the desert – I had nothing and nowhere to go.
From there, I got a short contract with the Blue Bulls in 2016 playing Super Rugby. But at the end of the contract they let me go and I was back in the desert. So I decided to retire. Luckily that was short-lived – In November 2016, Gert Smal called from the Stormers, and after a lot of convincing from my wife, I joined them. I had moved seven times in 11 months – and I had to pay for that out of my own pocket. So I was quite reluctant to take that risk again.
I joined the Stormers in January of this year, and I feel very fortunate to be there until 2019 – for my wife especially, as she doesn’t have to pack up and move for a while.
Moving to a new union or club must come with its challenges: which change is hardest to adapt to?
Every time you move you are back at square one. It’s like going to high school for the first time. There’s a new structure, a new way of playing and new team mates. The sooner you can adapt to that and become a part of it all, the easier it is to settle in.
What do you love about being a professional rugby player?
I’ve been able to make memories with special guys from all over the world. We’re very fortunate because we get to travel. Those memories are priceless – I regard them as precious.
What is the biggest difference between playing at club level and playing at a Super Rugby or Currie Cup level?
First, the game gets faster, and so you need to be more fit. It also grown in intensity, and at Super Rugby level, you have to be error-free. In club rugby you’re not punished as harshly for any mistakes you make.
What is the most difficult part of being a professional sportsman?
Definitely the sacrifices you have to make. Your body is your temple. And when your mates are out having a beer, you can’t join them because you have to be up early to train the next day, or you have a big match. We work very hard, and our bodies are our tools – so we have to look after them or they break down. And even on holiday, we have to go to gym and run, because if you come back and you haven’t been doing anything, you’re likely to end up with injuries.
You’ve become a father very recently. What kind of father do you hope to be?
Having a baby means a lot of responsibility – it still feels very unreal to me. But I plan to be an open-minded father. I hope my daughter will feel that she can confide in me, that there’s nothing she can’t share with me.
What has been the biggest game-changer in your personal life so far?
I’m a very positive person – I like to see the good in things. Probably the whole Kings saga was the biggest game-changer for me, but it was also positive, because it gave me an appreciation of what I do as a sportsman. I realised what the real world is like. So I’m thankful for that.
What do you love about change?
I love setting new goals, and gaining a new mind-set.
What do you hate about change?
The discomfort – change always pushes you out of your comfort zone, and that can be quite difficult.
How do you approach things you want to change about yourself?
I think you have to be honest with yourself about what your own failings are. My mother always said that the time when you’re most honest with yourself is just before you fall asleep at night. So you have to understand your faults and then take action to change.
What’s the most challenging thing you’ve done?
Having to pick myself up after the Kings saga. It was a frustrating, exhausting and stressful time. But I’m happy with the way I handled the situation, with the support of my family and wife.
Who is your role model?
My father. I really look up to him, but he’s also my biggest critic. He studies my game and then tells me what I need to improve. And he’s brutally honest! But he’s always there for me.
Is there a book that has changed your life?
I’m not a big book reader – I prefer to read about current events. But Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki taught me how to handle the money side of rugby, and the lessons I learnt meant I was able to carry myself for quite a while when I had no job.
What makes you happy?
For me, heaven on earth is the Kruger National Park. If I have a chance, it’s the first place I go. When I’m there, I feel humbled by the beauty of Mother Nature.
What legacy would you like to leave for your children and/or society one day?
My philosophy is that people come and go, but legends live forever – so for me it’s about the way I make people around me feel. Friendliness is something that the blind can see and the deaf can hear, so I try to make an impact on people’s lives that way.