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Ken Borland

Gelant plays with a joie de vivre that comes from a great love for the game

Posted on September 14, 2022 by Ken

Racing 92’s new fullback signing Warrick Gelant plays with a joie de vivre that comes from a great love for the game of rugby, but he first began playing the sport so he could join his friends in getting out of sitting in class.

Gelant, who is currently in South Africa’s squad for the Rugby Championship, was born in Knysna, the holiday destination on the stretch of beautiful coastline a four-hour drive west of Cape Town known as The Garden Route. He attended the community primary school in Hornlee and was an active participant in several sports.

“Growing up in Knysna, I played a lot of different sports and we would always be having games in the street,” Gelant says. “I really wanted to represent my province, South-Western Districts, in one of them.

“I was especially keen on football and cricket, and rugby was actually almost the last sport I tried, starting when I was nine years old.

“For the boys who did play rugby, Wednesday was their match day and, because they were allowed to leave school early to get to their games, I would be the only one left in the classroom!

“Being the last one in the classroom was not something I enjoyed, so about three weeks into the season I decided to join my friends and do the whole rugby thing.

“But because I was joining late, I did not want it to look like I didn’t know what I was doing, so I made a point of studying all the laws and the skills.

“Fortunately I could kick with both my feet because of football and my handling was good because of cricket,” Gelant said.

His tremendous ball-sense meant he did earn his South-Western Districts colours, being chosen for the U13 Craven Week in 2008.

His primary school coaches, Frank Borchards and Neil Weber, recognised that he had special talent, and through their efforts Gelant received a bursary to do his high schooling at Hoërskool Outeniqua in nearby George. This school is well-known as a rugby hotspot, consistently ranking in the top-10 junior teams in South Africa and it has produced some brilliant talent through the years. This year they had five players in the South African Schools team.

“Everything started happening at Outeniqua,” Gelant says of a journey that saw him make the SA Schools team in 2013 and the Junior Springboks the following year.

Having signed for the Bulls in faraway Pretoria in 2014, Gelant returned to the Cape in 2020 to play for the Stormers. By then he was a World Cup winner with the Springboks and acknowledged as one of the most exciting talents in the country.

But his move to Cape Town coincided with the shutting down of rugby due to the Covid-19 pandemic and he also then suffered an ACL knee injury when the action resumed.

But this year was a triumph for the man known as “Boogie” – probably for both his threat as the boogie-man for defences and also his fast feet.

Gelant dazzled in counter-attack for the Stormers and was arguably the best fullback in the United Rugby Championship as the team that started the competition in disarray due to off-field problems ended up winning the trophy.

Gelant loved the season, not only because of the success, but also because of the style of rugby the Stormers played under coach John Dobson.

“We had to get accustomed to a new style of rugby and rules are blown differently in the UK. So we struggled initially, but at least we were together all the time overseas and we could sort things out,” Gelant says.

“Belief started to creep in when we saved the game against Edinburgh and then we beat the Dragons. Things started to work for us and we really started to believe we were getting somewhere.

“There was buy-in from everyone in terms of how we wanted to play and we really played for each other. So we ended up winning our last 11 games on the trot.

“The Irish and Welsh teams really stick to their systems, they are very tight and very driven by that, they rarely go out of their system. And that can really break you down.

“So we needed to disrupt their structure and we did that by not making our play too structured. We needed to find a way to handle chaos better than they did.

“We needed to understand what sort of game we wanted to play and if we wanted to kick. It was about how to handle territory and space and understand the opportunities that are there when play gets loose and making sure you can capitalise. It’s about the way everyone reacts and plays off each other,” Gelant said.

So given that he enjoyed the previous season so much, why is Gelant moving to France?

It is simply to take his game to the next level and he believes France is the best place to do that. He has only played 10 Tests for South Africa and you fancy that is a number Gelant is eager to grow.

“Anytime you go to a top club it is an opportunity and I believe the Top 14 is the best competition in the world. It’s really tough because there are 14 different teams in it, compared to just four franchises in South Africa,” Gelant says.

“You also play in such different conditions: You play indoors in a closed stadium at Racing, but then you’ll be in the rain and maybe even snow in your away matches.

“Every part of my game will be tested. I certainly don’t know it all yet, and it will be a great test to measure myself. And Racing have amazing management and they are a great club,” Gelant says.

This determination to get the most out of his talent should benefit Racing 92 in the coming season. Only the most naïve of babes in the woods would expect to never get injured during a rugby career, but the way Gelant has fought back from double knee surgery at the end of 2020 speaks volumes for his motivation and professionalism.

In order to ensure he would return to being the player he was, Gelant sacrificed playing against the British and Irish Lions last year in order to have both knees sorted out at the same time.

“I already had a hole in my one cartilage when I tore my ACL and I had been playing in severe pain. I had the opportunity to get the other knee fixed too, but that meant turning my back on the Lions tour,” Gelant explains.

“But I made a really mature decision to sacrifice in the short-term and fix both knees at the same time. It was not easy, but I believe I have a lot of rugby still in me.

“There were tough times in rehab, but I imagined myself coming back as a better player, moving better and being more mature.

“When I did come back for the Stormers, it felt amazing and I know I made the right decisions. I quickly refound my old form.

“I was so grateful just to be playing again after double knee surgery. It can be taken away from you so easily.

“I feel I can still take my game up a notch, I can still get better now that my body has no issues.

And I haven’t given up on the Springboks either. Being exposed to quality, world-class players in France every week will give me the best chance of getting back into the Springbok starting XV. If they do select me, they will be getting a better player than I was,” Gelant states.

In the meantime, Racing 92 are getting a gem of a player, a special talent who is in the right head space.

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    Philemon 1:7 – “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”

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