The baby face belied the real warrior inside the giant figure of Lood de Jager. Now, he stands tall in South African rugby after being named as the best player in the country.
Springbok lock De Jager, who was one of the stars at last year’s Rugby World Cup, was named as the 2015 South African Rugby Player of the Year by Saru on Thursday.
The 23-year-old Cheetahs lock, who battled injury for most of last year’s Super Rugby campaign, usurped the position of the lineout master Victor Matfield in the Bok starting line-up at the World Cup, such was the impact he had when he was on the field.
The veteran Matfield was relegated to the bench as De Jager partnered Eben Etzebeth in the second row at the World Cup in the UK.
He was one of the few South Africans to enhance his reputation in 2015 as a forceful lock who was equally comfortable in striding forward with ball-in-hand as he was in calling the lineouts or putting in a huge tackle.
De Jager’s work-rate was enormous throughout the international season, and he has been duly rewarded for a stellar 2015 despite the Boks going down to the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final and losing to Argentina and Japan.
He beat off the challenges of Etzebeth, Damian de Allende, Schalk Burger and Jaco Kriel for the biggest rugby award in South Africa. De Jager, at 23, is the youngest winner since Bryan Habana claimed it in 2005 as a 22-year-old.
“Personally, I had an unbelievable year with the Springboks, although it was a bit up and down for the team,” De Jager said in a statement on Thursday.
“But a lot of younger players gained invaluable experience and this bodes well for the future of the South African game. We just have to now go out and use it in 2016.
“I’m excited for a big season ahead, with a lot of challenges, and I’m sure we can all make a difference this year.”
Golden Lions loose forward Kriel, who was unlucky to miss out on the Springbok squad, was acknowledged for his breakthrough year in senior rugby by being named the Players’ Player of the Year.
Inside centre De Allende, who was outstanding for the Boks and Stormers, was chosen as South Africa’s Super Rugby Player of the Year.
Another of the new brigade in the Bok squad, Bulls centre Jesse Kriel, was handed the Young Player of the Year trophy, while World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Werner Kok was logically given the South African award as well.
Johan Ackermann was chosen as the best coach after leading his team to eighth in Super Rugby and winning the Currie Cup, which ensured the Golden Lions were the Team of the Year.
SARU Award Winners
SARU Player of the Year: Lood de Jager
Players’ Player of the Year: Jaco Kriel
SA Sevens Player of the Year: Werner Kok
Young Player of the Year: Jesse Kriel
SA Under-20 Player of the Year: Warrick Gelant
Team of the Year: Golden Lions (Currie Cup)
Coach of the Year: Johann Ackermann (Golden Lions)
Super Rugby Player of Year: Damian de Allende (Stormers)
Vodacom Cup Player of the Year: Marnus Schoeman (Pumas)
Currie Cup Premier Division Player of the Year: Jaco Kriel (Golden Lions)
Currie Cup First Division Player of the Year: Rhyno Smith (Leopards)
Try of the Year: Johan Deysel (NWU-Pukke v Shimlas, Varsity Cup Final
Craven Week Player of the Year: Ernst van Rhyn (Western Province)
Referee Award: Rasta Rasivhenge
Women’s Achiever Award: Veroeshka Grain
Club Player of the Year: Leon du Plessis (Rustenburg Impala)