Cape Town — It’s one thing being a stand-out player at a so-called smaller union, but Willie Engelbrecht has already shown that he can handle the “big leagues” at the Stormers.
Hailing from Pretoria, a young Engelbrecht would’ve had dreams of wearing the light-blue jersey of the Blue Bulls, and becoming a Springbok.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way, with Engelbrecht turning out for the Valke and then Limpopo Blue Bulls in his youth, before graduating to the Limpopo senior side.
He got his big break at the Pumas in 2017, though, and hasn’t looked back. Engelbrecht was chosen as the Mpumalanga side’s Player of the Year in February, where he also received the Players’ Player and Forward Player awards.
That kind of recognition came on the back of a superb Super Rugby Unlocked campaign, and he continued in that vein in the Currie Cup, which caught the eye of the Stormers, who recruited him on loan for the Rainbow Cup.
The 29-year-old loose forward again impressed for the Pumas in the most recent Currie Cup, and secured a second loan period with the Stormers for the United Rugby Championship, where he was again a handful with his abrasive ball-carries and thunderous tackles around the fringes.
“It was fantastic to go and play overseas for the first time, and it was such a privilege to play for the Stormers. To start every single game is an absolute honour,” Engelbrecht said this week ahead of Saturday’s clash with Italian club Zebre at Cape Town Stadium (3pm kickoff).
“It was nice to play against people you don’t know, and refs that don’t know you, so it was good to challenge myself over there.
“Nama (Xaba) and Junior (Pokomela) are performing well at six, and Evan (Roos) is playing some of the best rugby we’ve seen him play in a while. I’m obviously one of the older ones! But it’s nice to still learn some stuff from the new guys, and they just lift me up to play better rugby.
“I feel my form is getting to where I want it to be, but I always feel I can be better.”
The Cape side were unfortunate to lose their first two URC tour matches against Benetton and Munster, having been in the lead in both matches, and then they drew 20-20 with Edinburgh, before finally breaking their duck with a convincing 24-10 triumph over the Dragons at Rodney Parade in Newport.
Engelbrecht was a strong presence at blindside flank in each game, and believes that the Capetonians will be better prepared for the rest of the competition, starting with Zebre this weekend.
Coach John Dobson will also be able to call on three members of the Springbok squad against Zebre and Welsh side Cardiff over the next fortnight – Damian Willemse, Marvin Orie and Salmaan Moerat – and Engelbrecht is happy to see the lock duo shore up the lineouts.
He also insisted that the Stormers won’t be expecting an easy afternoon against a Zebre team that have lost all five matches so far.
“To have Marvin back just gives the rest of the forwards a little bit of clarity around the lineouts – he is a big lineout-caller, and prides himself on his lineouts. It just gives you that little bit of a safety cushion when he makes the calls.
“And Moon (Moerat) has also been good in making those calls, and to have those two big guys scrumming is going to impact our scrums even more.
“No (complacency against Zebre). You take every team… They play in the URC for a reason, so they are a good team – no matter how they are doing this season. So, we have to prepare ourselves to be at our best this week. It doesn’t matter what team we play against.”