Insider: JJ Engelbrecht
Some say he is a fashionista, a charmer who can tinkle the ivories when needed. Most know him simply as the try-scoring midfielder JJ Engelbrecht, and it is clear this quiet, determined rugby player has more to him than most would know.
There was a time when Engelbrecht wasn’t the most loved Springbok. A newcomer to Vodacom Super Rugby last year, he earned his Bok debut against Argentina in Cape Town last year at a time when public sentiment was critical of the Boks.
A tough test match and little time or ball to make an impact he came out of the game thankful for the opportunity but wasn’t picked again until this year.
It was a moment that signified the determination in his game, his drive to succeed as he returned to the Bulls and simply worked harder, so much so that this year there was hardly a peep when he was selected. And with a second chance, he hardly blinked as he scored both against Italy and Scotland, doing what he loves most – running with the ball.
Those who know Engelbrecht well talk about the determination, the desire to succeed but they also talk about the deeply religious, deeply committed friend and someone you can go to war with. The Engelbrecht that people don’t know off the field is one who is a fun-loving natural athlete who is passionate about life. A person who once he makes a friend, has a friend for life.
It is easy to see where Engelbrecht’s rugby prowess comes from. A natural athlete who excelled at school sports, the game was ingrained in him from childhood.
Both his grandfathers – namesake JJ Engelbrecht, a six flank and Braam Brink, fullback – played in the famous North Eastern Districts side that downed the Blue Bulls in 1946. It may not seem like a big feat nowadays but it was the equivalent of a club side beating the All Blacks back then.
But JJ had bigger aspirations. From when he barely could walk he wanted to play rugby – although at three years old he surprised his family – his dad a Free State supporter and mom a Sharks supporter – when he told the neighbour he wanted to play for Western Province.
Click on the image below to see, in pictures, how JJ Engelbrecht's career progressed to date:
“He was blessed with ball skills from the time he was a toddler,” his father Jurie recalls, “One day our neighbour came over to watch the rugby on MNET, and she asked JJ – only three years old – what he wanted to do one day. His answer was easy, play rugby for Western Province.
Given their provincial alliances the only thing in common with his parents was that they “would support anyone but the Blue Bulls.”
How ironic it must have been when he became a Springbok at the Bulls then?
“I didn’t initially want him to go, but Heyneke Meyer and Ian Schwartz (then with the Bulls) had a long discussion with him and when he told me what they discussed, I told him the right decision was to make the move,” Jurie explains.
This video is not available in your region
For one, it allowed Engelbrecht, frustrated by his stalling rugby career in Cape Town, the opportunity to play in the midfield again. And those who followed his path know all too well he was always a midfielder through school.
“JJ made his mark from grade one when he scored two tries in his first game he played. From there all he wanted to do was play rugby,” Jurie says, reminding that most of his school career was “in Kirkwood, not PE. Kirkwood folks get upset when the commentators keep saying he was from PE.”
But Engelbrecht was special. Playing for Kirkwood Primary, his under 11 team set a provincial record, winning 23 of their 24 games in the season and scoring a massive 643 points in the process. JJ was at the forefront in the number 12 jersey and scored a massive 49 tries that season.
“He excelled at other sports as well. He was the Eastern Province hurdles champion from 10 years old until he was in Matric.”
Jurie tells the story of how as a primary school child, JJ loved travelling, and was fascinated by the opportunity of touring with sports teams, especially as his two older sisters went on school tours with the hockey and netball teams.
“But when he got to standard six (grade eight), he found out only the first rugby, hockey, netball and golf teams were going to tour. So he came home and asked me if he could lend my golf clubs and made sure he got into the first golf team. That’s how much he wanted to tour.”
Ignored for the Craven Week team because the selectors preferred another centre who “JJ ran rings around” according to his father, Engelbrecht moved to wing, where he was immediately noticed.
From there the short spell in Western Province was enough to catch Meyer’s eye, and the move to Pretoria set his Springbok hopes into motion.
His initial foray into Super Rugby left him determined to get better, and he readily admits he feels more comfortable in the Green and Gold this time around.
“It was tough first year – it was my first time playing super rugby, and I made my debut and then was left out,” Engelbrecht explains.
“But that’s life, you go through ups and downs. I went back to the Bulls, realised I need to enjoy game more, and give my best on the field. Off the field you can’t control so do the best with what you can.”
His defence was the initial criticism that has since faded, and Engelbrecht hardly hears the talk of him not being able to tackle anymore.
“It was difficult for me,” he adds, “It was the first time I was playing 13 in four years (he partnered Tim Whitehead at Grey High) and it was difficult to read the moves. But that’s natural and it helped that I had time to work with specific coaches on my defence.
This video is not available in your region
“I put in a lot of hard work and now I’m getting used to it, although there is always room for improvement. Certainly it is much better at the moment.”
And scoring tries is his forte
“It doesn’t matter to me, I love scoring in the Green and Gold and I can tell you every one is just like the first one.”
Off the field his friends talk about his Playstation and Golf obsessions, with regular stories of the intense Fifa 13 battles with Bulls teammate Jurgen Visser dominating the home life.
Former housemate Lionel Cronje, now at the Lions, says Engelbrecht is a “very chilled guy” but adds that people don’t realise what a “fashionista” he actually is.
“He may make as if he doesn’t enjoy golf but he is the Ricky Fowler of Golf. He’s always picking new outfits with his Puma caps and shirts. He loves his fashion – his skinny jeans and tight shirts. And peak caps, he is definitely a peak cap guy. A real fashionista.”
One thing that you would never call Engelbrecht is masterchef though, as the midfielder may be an ace at other things, but readily admits he’s not the best cook in town.
This prompted a series of funny twitter photos last year at his attempts to rectify this, and shake his name as “takeaway Engelbrecht” in his housemates’ eyes.
“He doesn’t really like cooking,” Cronje laughs, “I’m not saying he eats unhealthy stuff but he loves his Fishaways and Nandos. Sometimes he just buys the food and asks us to cook it for him.”
No wonder then Engelbrecht says his loves are “travelling and eating out” but he disputes Cronje’s description of his cooking skills.
“I’ve taken a step up lately and am eating a lot better. We’re only three in the house now so we take turns to cook.”
And what can he cook?
“I can gooi a chicken in the oven, pasta is easy and then there is always the braai,” he laughs.
However, if he needs to impress, he makes up for it with his secret weapon – he is a whizz on the piano. Bok management have told of stories of how Engelbrecht is the post-game entertainment, playing for his teammates with a few players stepping up to sing along.
“I can play one or two notes on the piano, I can probably impress a girl with a song or two,” he smiles adding that he doesn’t know many songs. “But Titanic is one of my favourites.”
And as long as he is scoring tries and continues his form for the Boks, he won’t have to use the soppy stuff too much.
Planting the ball on the other side of the whitewash will be all he needs to do to shine.