OVER THE LINE: JJ Engelbrecht scores against Italy at Kings Park in June.
Centre JJ Engelbrecht has scored four of the Springboks’ 25 tries this season and is central to the backline’s newfound cutting edge. He has lighting speed, good hands and vision, which have created space and tries for his teammates.
Comparisons with Gerber – who scored 19 tries in just 24 Tests – are difficult because he was able to change pace and direction with an effortless swerve or subtle acceleration, whereas Engelbrecht is all about speed. But the results are as destructive – he has scored four tries in just five Tests.
“If you have pace it’s easier to get on the outside of a defender,” said the 24-year-old. “But you have to use speed wisely because you don’t just want to beat a man on the outside and at the same time kill space for your support runners.
Engelbrecht, who has been arguably the most improved rugby player in South Africa in the past 12 months, has made the No 13 jersey his own less than a year after returning to playing at centre following four years as a wing at Western Province.
He made his Test debut off the bench against Argentina at Newlands last year and was an unused sub against the same opponents in Mendoza a week later, then was dropped for the remainder of the Rugby Championship without really doing much wrong. Now he’s a fixture in the team.
“It was disappointing to be dropped after only having a few minutes and I spent time thinking: ‘Why was I dropped, what did I do wrong?’ But (coach) Heyneke Meyer is very honest and open and said I didn’t fit into his immediate plans at that time. He told me to go back to Currie Cup and prove myself there and I’d get another chance in the squad.”
Meyer was a key figure in recruiting Engelbrecht for the Bulls in late 2011. And the carrot the coach used to attract the flyer to Pretoria was the promise of playing centre – a position he occupied with distinction at schoolboy level at Grey High in Port Elizabeth.
Engelbrecht found the transition back to centre tricky.
“Defending at 13 is one of the hardest positions in the game.”
But it’s one of the best positions for men of attacking instinct. Engelbrecht, in that sense at least, is worthy of comparisons to Gerber.