Zane Kirchner happy to make the cut for Leinster

It’s a complete fresh start for the South African with Leinster . . . even his dreads have been shorn

Leinster’s Zane Kirchner skips away from a tackle by Northampton Saints’ Ken Pisi during the Heineken Cup win last Saturday. Photograph: Tony marshall/PA Wire

Leinster’s Zane Kirchner skips away from a tackle by Northampton Saints’ Ken Pisi during the Heineken Cup win last Saturday. Photograph: Tony marshall/PA Wire


“Kirchner has divided opinion. Does he have the creative qualities to lead a Springbok counter-attack against the Wallabies? Or does his selection at fullback smack of a boringly conservative approach to the game from Heyneke Meyer?”

South African journalist Carly Adno writing in The Daily Telegraph last September.

Following Isa Nacewa is like being handed a microphone in a smokey saloon after Bill Hicks has just nuked the room and being told, “You’re up, kid.”

That opening line better be dark. In fact, if your entire routine doesn’t bring tears of hilarity to the locals you may get used to life as a dirt tracker.

Zane Kirchner arrived in Dublin last August, had a look around then split. The Rugby Championship and the ultimate challenge called him home for Tests against Australia and New Zealand.

As long as he can lace up boots, the chance to be among Springboks will concentrate his mind. “Hopefully the door of playing for your country is never closed.”

In Heyneke Meyer’s eyes decamping to Europe is not a mortal sin. Sure enough when November rolled around and Kirchner was recalled to be South Africa squad, despite the emergence of Willie Le Roux, Leinster had no option but to release him. Matt O’Connor wasn’t best pleased. Twenty players missing including the new and expensive foreigner.

That was the great thing about Nacewa. He wasn’t really Fijian and was never interested in winning a second cap.

Kirchner is not Nacewa. Nor those he want to be. The perception of him in South Africa as a straight-line running, conservative fullback seems overly harsh.

But that’s how he was labelled even after establishing himself in an excellent Blue Bulls team. He was the poor cousin of modern magicians of the back field, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen.

The Leinster players already know different from training. The public are beginning to get a glimpse of what’s to come.

Twenty nine caps in the famous dark green jersey couldn’t possibly be conservative. Springboks don’t pick average.

Tiki-taki fashion
Proof was still needed at the RDS, and it came a fortnight ago when he started alongside Luke Fitzgerald and the now departed Lote Tuqiri (Leinster are going to make one last pitch to the IRFU for his return next week).

Fitzgerald and Kirchner immediately connected, coruscating down the left wing in tiki-taki fashion for buckets of yardage and two pretty tries. One disallowed by weak refereeing. Kirchner found his kindred spirit yet again at Franklin’s Gardens last Saturday, coming off the bench to tee up Fitzgerald’s hat-trick.

Boringly conservative he was not. Counter attackingly creative he most certainly was. “The way that I played in the Scarlets game is pretty much what I can bring. That’s me. That’s how I have played all my life.”

He has no interest in defending himself against a stereotype but Dublin offers a new life, a chance to show the northern hemisphere what a “conservative” Springbok fullback is capable of.

But there’s another problem. Rob Kearney just played the game of his life against the All Blacks. Dave Kearney and Fitzgerald also command inclusion against Northampton.

Nacewa’s best gift to Leinster was his versatility. The ability to play outhalf, particularly fullback and wing with a sprinkling of centre that made him a guaranteed starter.

But Kirchner can’t do that, can he?

An outhalf growing up in George in the Western Cape, it wasn’t until a trip to Craven Week – Top Gun for any South Africa boy seeking a professional contract – that the selectors felt his pace made him a better prospect running from deep.

“I have always wanted to play centre,” was his surprising response to the question of position. “I have played fullback since joining my old club Griguas but I am pretty much comfortable wing, centre, fullback.”

He may well be accommodated at 13 during the Six Nations – and beyond – this season.

His first cap for South Africa was in direct opposition to Kearney in 2009 in the dead rubber third Lions Test. They met in the air again that November.

“I remember my first Test against Ireland here. It was at Croke Park. Me and Rob played against each other that day as well. It was quite cold.”

And the mist, he remembers the mist but forgets Brian O’Driscoll emptying Jacque Fourie in the last play of the game as Ireland took a smidgen of revenge for the summer Test series to complete their only unbeaten calendar year.

Kirchner speaks with a distinctly Dutch accent. It’s a South African accent of course but sounds Dutch to the naive European ear. He is mixed race.

Your first language is Afrikaans?

“Back home, yes.”

But you grew up speaking both?

“Yes. My wife is actually English so it was basically just about what mates we are with. The ones that speak Afrikaans we speak Afrikaans, if the rest of the group are English then you speak English.”

By English he doesn’t mean it literally rather being of English descent.

We wonder aloud why the larger salary from French clubs – taken up by Habana, Morne Steyn and Bakkies Botha – was not pursued or following Fourie to cash rich Japan.

“We just recently had a new baby girl (Amaris), so on a personal level it was a very big move. First of all we thought about leaving my wife (Tasneem) and baby back home but then we thought neither of us would have coped in terms of the long distance so we decided to move as a family.

“We knew we would be trying to find our feet in the first couple of months but I would prefer finding it together than being on my own.

“The advantage of coming to Dublin was still being able to speak English. The club speaks for itself. The quality of guys around here made my decision easier.”

Every aspect of life narrowed when this fragile little girl came into his world.

“I just think when you start off playing rugby it is all about you wanting to make it, you want to prove to the world everyday.

“Yet now you got another pair of eyes looking towards you. That gives you more reason to put on the jersey or getting up in the morning to go and earn what you need to earn.

“When you go back to them it is about how they light up your spirit. For that reason it just gives so much more reason going out and putting your body on the line because you know what you are doing it for, not just for the guys around here but your family.”

“Not that rugby isn’t important but after training to go home and just know they are there, it is not the most exciting times or fun for them because they are pretty much just chilling at home for now, but I would rather prefer that then having them in South Africa with only long distance phone calls. I couldn’t take that.”

Cut dreads
A fresh start so. Even the dreads have been shorn.

“People probably thought it was an image thing but back in the day I never liked to comb my hair so I just thought ‘let me grow it and see how it goes.’ Then I got the dreads and kept them for four years. I just decided to get it cut, there is a little baby girl here so a new start with her. New city, new beginnings.

“I can always grow the hair back. It was never about the hair, you just go through certain stages, certain phases in your life. People do it with facial hair or whatever, cars, different ways of dressing, it is just a way of . . . you know?”

Being yourself. Get it. Away he goes. Being Zane Kirchner not Isa Nacewa.

“From what I hear from the guys Isa was so influential. Coming in and trying to fill those boots I think in a way he was doing it, be it on the field or speaking, I will probably not do much of the chatting but I will try to be as influential as him on the field.”

That would stand up just fine.

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