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INSIDER: Marco van Staden

The players call him ‘Eskom’ and Nick Mallet called him a dark horse for Springbok selection. He is undoubtedly the breakthrough player of the season and is surely a superstar in the making. Just don’t ask Marco van Staden to tell you about it.

“He does not like to talk about himself,” his mother Debbie van Staden told me when I caught up with her earlier in the week.

It is something I knew beforehand, but not something that would deter me from telling his remarkable story.

His is a story of hope, determination and a fascination with the game we all claim to love. It is a story that starts barefoot next to frost-covered rugby fields on ice cold Highveld mornings.

“You have to understand that he absolutely loves rugby, he always has,” Debbie explained. “I remember that in Grade 1 he wanted to play so badly, that even if he wasn’t in the team, he’d force us to drive him through to places like Johannesburg so that he could sit next to the line while the under-9s played.

“He’d sit there all game pleading with the coach: ‘Can I play now, sir? Can you give me a chance, sir? What about now?’”

It is this trait that got him to where he is now. Without it none of us would know who he is today.

Marco is a product of Hoërskool Bekker, a relatively small agricultural school spread pretty across the slopes of the picturesque Magaliesberg mountain range. It is an idyllic setting to grow up in, but hardly a place known for regularly dropping provincial rugby players off its production line.

Coming from an unfancied school meant Marco was denied the chance to get on the regular elevator to stardom. He never played Craven Week and therefore came nowhere near the SA Schools side. The closest he came was a late call-up to the West-Rand trials, where the selectors barely gave him five minutes of playing time.

That was it, he was out of the elite system that provides us with almost all of our Springboks. It is the end of the road for almost any other player, but this is the tough-as-nails Van Staden we’re talking about.

The school remembers him as much for his off-field achievements. Van Staden was Head Boy and always an academic achiever, finishing matric with three distinctions.

That is not to say that his feats on the rugby field is not still the stuff of legend. Small in stature, Van Staden played scrumhalf until Grade 11, but even so he was always known as the hardest hitter in the team. If the opposition wanted to tap a penalty, Marco would tell the forwards to get behind him so that he can have the first go.

Ludwig Viljoen was Bekker’s first-team coach in those years and he remembers fondly the impact Van Staden had on both the game and those around him.

"In every match everyone was just waiting for Marco to get the first big hit. When that hit inevitably came, the whole team perked up. Now you were in the game.”

It is another trait that has never left him. Nowadays his Bulls team-mates call him “Eskom”, because if he gets to you he trips your lights.

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On the back of his strong academic record, Van Staden originally enrolled at North-West University in Potchefstroom to study mechanical engineering. He even had an interview with the Puk Rugby Institute, but neither of them were really interested.

Instead he chose Pretoria, joining the Blue Bulls Academy while studying sports science at Tuks (he graduated Cum Laude in 2017 and is now busy with his Honours).

Van Staden and the capital city was a match made in heaven. Now that he had a level playing field, his career took off like a rocket.

In 2014, his first year at varsity, he got selected to play for the Tuks under-19 team that won the Carlton Cup. He also represented the Limpopo Blue Bulls in the Under-19 Currie Cup. Back at the Academy he was named first-year student of the year.

In 2015 he played for the Tuks under-21 side that won the Varsity Cup Young Guns title. He also got his first taste of Bulls rugby, representing the Union at under-21 level. That year he took the awards for Blue Bulls U21 Best Forward as well as Player’s Player of the Year.

In 2016 he played Varsity Cup for Tuks’ first team (winning the title with them the next year). Again he is named the Bulls’ U21 Forward of the Year and Player’s Player of the Year.

From there we all know the story. In little over a year he went from merely being included in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge squad to being a Super Rugby standout, a household name, on the verge of even higher honours.

Just this past Saturday former Springbok coach Nick Mallett reminded us that Van Staden’s Springbok aspirations can no longer be ignored - something that current coach Rassie Erasmus seems to agree with, seeing that he roped him in for the Boks’ first training camp of the season.

He is also venerated overseas, with New Zealand commentator Scotty “Sumo” Stevenson recently writing about an upcoming Loftus game: “Marco van Staden alone is worthy of a ticket”.

Watch his Bulls team mates describe him here:

For his mother, however, he is still just her darling boy Marco. Still the kaalvoet klong that we last saw sitting next to a field, begging for a game.

“Marco loves the farm and the outdoors. He comes back home from Pretoria every time he gets a chance,” Debbie van Staden opens up.

“He comes across as quite introverted, but he is sharp. Once you’ve earned his trust he can be quite entertaining. He is a great storyteller and his Tolla van der Merwe impressions are spot on!

“Oh, and he loves Vetkoekpaleis, even his ringtone is Vetkoekpaleis,” the same Debbie van Staden beams.

Everyone who knows Marco van Staden seems to be fond of him, and those that know him best are all extremely proud of his accomplishments. They have every right to be.

His is not the average rags-to-riches tale, it is merely the story of a boy who only ever wanted a chance to play the game he loves at one level higher. A boy who wouldn’t let anything get in his way.

That boy is now just one small step away from the ultimate honour of being a Springbok, and every weekend we can see him play a game that screams at the selectors: “Can I play now, sir? Can you give me a chance, sir? What about now?”

Long may that continue.


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