Exclusive – Why Wayne van der Bank has ‘fallen back in love with rugby’ in New England

Wayne van der Bank began his career with the Golden Lions in his native South Africa
©Kyle Gilmor

Playing in his inaugural Major League Rugby campaign in 2022, Wayne van der Bank certainly enjoyed a memorable campaign with the New England Free Jacks.

Taking part in 16 games for the team, he and his teammates finished atop the Eastern Conference standings before losing to eventual champions Rugby New York in the Eastern Conference Final.

Joining Scott Mathie’s team from the Pumas, the South African impressed plenty with his all-round style of play. Capable of making line breaks with ease, as well as to snuff out attacks with equally physical defensive displays, the 25-year-old won himself plenty of fans in North America.

Born and raised in Pretoria, Van der Bank’s professional career began five years ago in 2017. A product of the Johannesburg-based Golden Lions, the centre made a string of appearances for the team, but as a result of injury was unable to graduate and represent the Lions in Super Rugby and subsequently prompting a move to Mbombela.

His performances for the Pumas clearly grabbed the attention of Scott Mathie, who was moving on from coaching the Griquas to Boston and a new challenge in MLR. Starting 13 games, Van der Bank and his teammates would go to new heights, going on an 10-game unbeaten run and establishing themselves as the competition’s number one seed heading into the playoffs.

“I would say it is one of my favourite seasons in professional rugby,” Van der Bank said. Definitely one of my top five seasons in my rugby career, especially coming from two or three years of not enjoying rugby that much.

“Since I have been here, I have fallen back in love with rugby and it has made me hungry to play again and be excited for the games gain, where in the last two years there was no real fire to play at all.

“This year, it just renewed the fire again to play. Before, I was at the Lions. I got injured for two years. I got back from injuries, played and got injured every time at the end of the season. Last year at the Pumas, I had two or three really good games and then all of a sudden, my confidence just dipped.

“I was struggling with my confidence, that made me really doubt myself a lot. This year, it was just going back to really believing that I can do it and that got me excited again. 

“I just looked at some old films that my agent made and looked at that again and realised that I can still do it. That just lit a new fire in me to do it again and to actually get better. That is how it went for me.”

Looking at statistics, and the virtues that the South African brings to the New England cause are clear to see. Carrying the ball on 113 occasions, Van der Bank made 1371 meters with the ball in hand, beat 33 defenders and completed 167 tackles.

Add to that the 25-year-old playing in a backline that boasted the talents of the league’s Player of the Year, Beaudein Waaka, as well as recent Namibia callup Le Roux Malan and former Scotland international Dougie Fife, it was certainly a season to remember.

In his debut season as head coach, former Sale Sharks and Leeds Carnegie scrum-half Scott Mathie was recognised as the Coach of the Year. Combining with assistant coach Mike Rogers, the duo clearly made an impact both on and off the pitch, the pair driving culture off the field and benefitting as a result.

“The think that Coach Scott drives in this team is characters and working hard,” Van der Bank said. “We need to work hard for each other, have that dog in you, that fight to not give up, be ruthless, not to give the attacking team anything to work on, but to shut them down the whole time.

“That is what Coach Scott and Mike Rogers implemented the whole time. It was just working hard and making sure we were ruthless in defence, not giving them any meters or any space to do anything.

“Before I came over, Coach Scott gave me a call to make sure I was ready for the season and excited for everything. One of the things he said to me was that he wants a player that works hard and that’s why he picked me to come over.

“I think that has been a character trait of me for many years. I work hard and I play to never give the opposition any inches. If I carry the ball, if I tackle, I always make sure that I benefit the team. If it is tackling the player or when I run, beating as many defenders and run as far as possible.”

Having never made the playoffs before, the Free Jacks made it to the postseason in style. Heads and shoulders above much of their opposition, in a recent interview the team’s GM, Tom Kindley, described the side as ‘underachievers’, suggesting that there is scarily more to come from Veterans Memorial Stadium in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Over the course of the season, New England saw plenty of players rise to be first team regulars. This included loosehead prop Kyle Ciquera, who went from never having started a game to first-choice prop, while Mitch Wilson earned his first international callup and local player Cam Davidowicz established himself in the league.

But in spite of the immense positives over the course of the season, it ended with a loss in the Eastern Conference Final to New York 16-24. Ultimately the difference between the two was the greater experience which New York boasted, with former All Blacks Andy Ellis, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Waisake Naholo among their ranks.

“It took two or three months to actually watch the game again because I was so disappointed afterwards,” Van der Bank said. “I know the team that we had, and the capability of the team. We know that we could have gone all the way and actually won the title.

“That was a tough pill to swallow, but it still makes us excited for next year, especially knowing he have such a young team, and we haven’t been together for that long. 

“It makes you really excited for next year, to know that we didn’t actually play at our full potential, that the team still has a long way to grow, especially under new coaches and management.

“I think that the team still has a long wat to go. It is exciting to see where we will be this time next year.”

Preparations for the new season are already underway. One of the major things that the side will have to contend with is the loss of Beaudein Waaka to the Kobe Steelers in Japan, however the team has been boosted by the impending arrival of Canada internationals Andrew Quattrin, Cole Keith and Conor Keys.

There will also be a host of New Zealanders, NPC Bunnings regulars Conor Young, Jayson Potroz, Mitch Jacobson, Taniela Filimone and Joel Hintz, while 2022 regulars Josh Larsen, John Poland, Zach Bastres and Mitch Wilson have all committed to the cause once again.

Van der Bank is among a group of players already in Boston, taking part in a series of training camps under the watchful eyes of their head coach. Unlike some of his teammates, he has not been turning out in club competitions, instead focusing on getting his body right for the impending 2023 MLR season and going a step further.

“Some of the domestic guys, a lot of them are playing for club teams which will help them improve knowledge of the game,” Van der Bank said. “The more you play, the wiser you will get because you can rectify mistakes that you made previously and work on it in these club games.

“That is what this offseason and skills we are doing with Coach Scott, it is about evolving the stuff that we need to evolve for next year, to make sure that we get to the Eastern Conference Final, to make sure we evolve our game plan to play even better.”