Cape Town - Young Bulls lock Janko Swanepoel is used to being the underdog, but that hasn’t stopped him from carving out an already impressive rugby career.
Now 22, Swanepoel didn’t attend the two big Paarl rugby schools, Boys High and Gim, nor Boland Landbou, also near Paarl, or Paul Roos in Stellenbosch.
He made his name at Stellenberg High School, situated near Durbanville in the northern suburbs, about halfan-hour’s drive from the Cape Town City Centre.
Stellenberg was only established in 1986, so it doesn’t have that same rich history that many of the other top Western Cape schools can boast about.
But that didn’t stop Swanepoel from forcing his way into the Western Province Schools team in 2017, and then the SA Schools side in 2019.
He was snapped up by the Bulls straight out of school, and has made such dramatic progress that he is now a regular in the match-23 in Jake White’s team.
“Because we weren’t a very wellknown rugby school – we are better known for our academic achievements – we grew rugby a lot, and to be a small school and underdogs was a good experience,” Swanepoel said as the United Rugby Championship takes a break, for the South African teams at least.
“The coaches and school taught you to fight to make your name, and I must say, it definitely had a big influence. I am thankful for the coaches and the systems there, and they are growing all the time.”
That kind of determination has seen Swanepoel step up into senior rugby without any problem, despite not being the biggest second-rower around at about 107kg.
He is two-metres tall, though, which will help his line-out work, but it is his intensity around the pitch and his willingness to get stuck into the physical exchanges that have ensured he is part of the selection mix.
The Bulls boast a number of top-quality locks such as Ruan Nortjé, Walt Steenkamp, Sintu Manjezi and someone like Jacques du Plessis, who can also operate at flank.
Following a serious injury to Manjezi and Covid-19-related complications for Steenkamp, Swanepoel had to grow up quickly from the junior ranks to partner Nortjé in the second row.
And despite both being essentially No 5 locks, Swanepoel doesn’t mind doing the dirty work – something that one of his role-models is known for.
“From Under-19, I was chosen as a five lock, so through the junior ranks, I have always moved up as a five lock. When Jake brought me into the senior group and I got an opportunity to play at four, I just thought it’s something that would make me more versatile, to be able to play in both positions,” Swanepoel said.
“Wherever he wants me to play, I said I would play, so I definitely see a chance to (call the line-outs).”