DURBAN - The sojourns of South African rugby players to Japanese club rugby are often maligned for being “cushy numbers” but Andre Esterhuizen says that his rugby star has risen this season because of his time in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The blockbusting centre is in the form of his life and his regular Man of the Match awards for the Sharks this season have resulted in him being talked about as a potential Springbok against England in June.
The prime chunk of Klerskdorp beef, all 102kgs of him, is now more than a crash-ball inside centre and a devastating big hitter - he is now off-loading and passing and creating opportunities for his teammates rather than simply being a lethal finisher and tackler.
Esterhuizen, one of the stars of the Sharks’ show against the Highlanders last week, says his game evolved during his time with the Sanix Blues because of the different approach to the game in Japan, which forced him to change the way he has traditionally played.
“The game is a lot faster in Japan and you tend to run from everywhere,” the 24-year-old said. “You think nothing about running from your 22 and there is little focus on kicking for territory.”
It logically follows that handling the ball so much more is going to improve your distribution skills. In addition, Esterhuizen said that a foreign player at a Japanese club gets a number of rest breaks - there is a limit to the number of foreign-born players a team can field in a match - and that meant a time to work on his skills with coaches such as Carlos Spencer, the former All Black flyhalf.
“Carlos helped me a lot with my kicking and passing,” Esterhuizen said. “I got the confidence there to distribute. There is less pressure in Japanese club rugby and errors are not as heavily punished as they are in Super Rugby where a mistake can easily result in a try for the opposition.
“In Japan you can make an error and the game just continues. I developed the self-confidence to play more and try what I wanted. When I came back to the Sharks I felt comfortable to carry on playing the same way.”
The evolution of Esterhuizen’s all-round game has meant a lot more opportunities for those around him, including, of course, his centre partner Lukhanyo Am, who is being spoken about as a likely Springbok starter this year.
“Lukhanyo and I are into our second season together now and we are feeling good about our games, especially when we get front-foot ball, as has been the case lately. We are playing off each other but we also do our own thing and it seems to come together nicely,” Esterhuizen grinned.
This weekend in Pretoria, Esterhuizen will be up against burly Burger Odendaal, the Bulls captain, and the earth-shattering clashes between these two will alone be worth the price of the Loftus admission ticket.
“Burger and I go back a long way,” Esterhuizen smiled. “We first clashed at school level when I was at Klerksdorp and he was at Monument. We know each other well and it is certainly going to be another tough battle between us.”
That will be a battle within what is likely to be an almighty war. Both teams have their motivation to win by whatever means possible.
“We obviously have something to prove after that humiliating defeat to the Bulls at Kings Park,” Esterhuizen said. “We want to do to them what they did to us, but they are going to want to bounce back from their loss to the Stormers.
"As far as we are concerned, though, we are not going to forget that 40-10 hiding. We are going to take the confidence of last week’s excellent win over the Highlanders to Loftus and give it our all.”