Van Velze so proud to look back on his ‘awesome’ times at Saints

Some players spend years at a club and barely have one special individual moment to tuck into their suitcase when they depart.

By Tom Vickers
Sunday, 20th July 2014, 9:47 am
HAPPY TIMES - GJ van Velze shares a joke with Ben Foden (Pictures: Linda Dawson)
HAPPY TIMES - GJ van Velze shares a joke with Ben Foden (Pictures: Linda Dawson)

Others need several cases and hand luggage to hold all of the good times they have enjoyed.

GJ van Velze is certainly in the latter category because when asked about his personal highlights from his two-year stay at Franklin’s Gardens, he struggles to keep them in single figures.

“I had an awesome time at Northampton,” says the affable South African No.8, who made the move to Worcester Warriors this summer.

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“One of the biggest memories for me is the try at Ulster in my first year. We lost badly at home the week before and we went and beat them at Ravenhill.

“Another big memory was playing at Saracens in the Premiership semi-final and beating them.

“And the final we got to was my first Twickenham final, which was awesome, even though we lost. It was a massive experience.”

And that was just in his first season...

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“In my second season, it was a bit of a slow start and things didn’t go my way, but it was a good character test,” he adds, determined to put a positive spin on every event.

“There were quite a few times when I had to take it on the chin and move on, but I really believe it has made me a better person.

“In my second season, the day I captained the team against Saracens and we won to qualify for the LV= Cup final, and then being part of the squad winning the Challenge Cup and Premiership.

“It was special. It doesn’t happen often that people get involved with teams like that, who are so successful.”

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The try at Ulster is one that will live long not only in the memory of van Velze, whose family flew over to watch him in action at Ravenhill on that breathtaking December night, but in the memory of everyone with a Saints affiliation.

And the victory at Saracens, in which van Velze came off the bench to score in an emphatic win that secured a place in the Twickenham showpiece, wasn’t too bad either.

But, typical of the man, van Velze is modest when it comes to looking back on his achievements, claiming “I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time on both occasions”.

That refusal to indulge in self-gratification made the heavily-bearded van Velze a hugely popular figure at the Gardens following his move from Blue Bulls in his homeland back in 2012.

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It took him time to adapt, as it would any youngster going to work in another country for the first time, but, after two yellow cards in his first two games - and an eight-week ban for a tip tackle on Exeter’s Will Chudley - van Velze started to settle.

And that, he says, owes much to his former Saints team-mates.

“I still speak to them every week because they helped a lot with my transition, from being this naive Afrikaans boy moving to England, they helped me a lot,” says van Velze, who went on to make 31 appearances for Saints, scoring five tries.

“There was an uncertainty about it (the start to his Saints career), which got to me, but as soon as you start playing rugby that all goes away and you have something to look forward to every weekend.

“I had a bit of a reality check in my first pre-season with (performance director) Nick (Johnston), which didn’t make it easy, but then we started playing rugby and every single moment I spent on the pitch was brilliant.”

Eventually, though, van Velze found himself having to get used to life outside of the first-team picture.

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The start of his second and final season at the club saw him scoring tries for the Wanderers rather than the first team as Sam Dickinson, back from the arm injury that ruled him out of the previous campaign, began to impress.

And Dickinson’s form, allied with the continual blockbusting brilliance of Samu Manoa, made the No.8 shirt hard to come by, leading van Velze into the clutches of Worcester.

“Being a squad player is a difficult thing to be branded and it is possibly the last thing any rugby player wants to be called because we always want to challenge ourselves to the best of our ability,” said the 26-year-old.

“I came in to play rugby and things didn’t go my way at the start of last season.

“Credit to Sam, he played some great rugby whenever he had the opportunity and was rewarded with the England Saxons call up.

“He did really well and there just came a time where I had to make a decision on whether I would stay and wait longer for an opportunity or whether I go somewhere else where I get a different challenge and a fresh start.

“Speaking to (Worcester boss) Dean Ryan, I was really intrigued the first time I met him. He’s one of those people you like to impress.

“He makes a statement and he’s got a real presence. I enjoyed meeting up with him for the first time.”

Now van Velze will look to adapt to a different challenge of putting a team back among the English elite rather than helping them become the best of them.

But he will still be keeping a close eye on his old club as they bid to back up a season which ended with Amlin Challenge Cup and Aviva Premiership glory.

“I’ll be watching them in the Premiership weekly, following the boys and cheering them on,” said van Velze. “Hopefully they can do it back to back.”

And the good wishes will definitely be reciprocated.

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