Sitting down pitchside of the training pitch at Farleigh House, Jaco Coetzee takes in the scenery and remembers why rugby plays such an important role in his life.
The easy-going, forever smiling South African grew up in Pretoria before ending up in Cape Town via Durban. He has had a rugby ball in his hand from his nappy-wearing years as a toddler, whether he was running around the garden with his father or away on a camping trip with his parents and siblings.
There is a glint in the eye of the 24-year-old as he reflects on his childhood and it’s clear he has a beautifully close connection with his family.
“My father has always been such a rugby lover so since I can remember I always had a rugby ball in my hand. It started from a young age,” Coetzee said.
“I played rugby in the back garden with my father when I was three or four years old; I wasn’t even at school yet and I just wanted to play rugby. I didn’t know how the rules worked but I just wanted to play! Then I went on to primary school and played what we call Bulletjie rugby in Afrikaans when I was five-years-old.
“I’m very thankful to my parents because they love to travel and I was in every province for holidays; we’d go camping and whilst we were camping there would always be a rugby ball. I’d always make sure I was playing rugby even if I was with my brother back in the time where I was still in nappies! My dad wasn’t too fond of that, but I would actually bully him!
“Although our family has been scattered around the world, my family means the world to me.
"We chat every day; I phone my mum and dad every day. We are quite close even though we’re far away. We always make time for each other and take time out of our days to make sure we talk to each other. My family plays a big role in my life.”
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Coetzee’s love of rugby continued throughout his life and in his teens whilst at Glenwood High School, there became a realisation a career could be made from his much-loved hobby.
He went with the flow and was rewarded a contract by Super Rugby franchise The Stormers in 2015 and slowly built a reputation as a powerful defensive back rower with significant attacking capabilities.
A constant Cheshire Cat smile, it would have been easy to assume everything was going swimmingly for Coetzee – playing rugby professionally in his homeland, but he describes the end of his time with The Stormers as a ‘rocky journey’ and sought pastures new.
His calling was Bath Rugby. A fresh start a near-10,000km away by plane. Given his intimate relationship with his family, how did his parents take the news he would be heading to the Rec?
“Things ended in South Africa on a rocky journey for me. My parents saw what happened to me and I just didn’t enjoy my time there anymore.
“When this opportunity came up with Bath, they also had a good feeling in their heart that it would be the right opportunity for me.
"I never stressed about it and had a calmness in myself. They backed me all the way and said it was the place I needed to be.
“When I had to say goodbye to them, my mum couldn’t leave me! They came to visit me in Cape Town the week before I flew to the UK and my mum just didn’t have it in her heart to say goodbye to me. Luckily I didn’t see her on the day I was flying as I flew directly from Cape Town which was much better as I don’t think she would have handled it well! It actually played out nicely to see them for a week before I flew; it was nice family time.
“When I arrived I phoned them straight away after meeting everyone and they could hear how happy I was. They were very happy for me and stoked I’m here. They just don’t like it that I’m so far away from them! Sometimes you have to travel the world to find your own feet. I’m glad I’m here.”
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It took a while for Coetzee to have the opportunity to find his way in his new surroundings following an isolation period in a London hotel before travelling to Somerset to reside at Farleigh House.
Since then, google maps has been his tour guide and he admits he had to search Farleigh House online when it was described to him prior to his arrival and can understand why players want to train every day despite the cold weather!
“Everyone was telling me they train at Farleigh House and I thought it was part of the Rec; I had no idea what it was,” Coetzee said.
“I googled Farleigh House and I saw a castle and I was thinking ‘they can’t be training in a castle… this doesn’t make sense!’ and then when I drove in with my agent I was so shocked. The grounds here and the facilities are so beautiful – I was completely shocked. I was literally gobsmacked when I saw the gym, the physio room and how everything operates. It’s unbelievable.
“Now I understand why the guys want to come to training when it’s snowing – it makes sense now! I need to go winter shopping because the winter clothes I’ve brought over are not going to be good enough!”
He added: “Everyone tells me it’s such a small city but every time I'm in it, it feels massive! I think it’s because all the buildings are right next to the road and the roads are so small so I’m not used to it. On my off days or if I’m not too busy after training, I like to go in, grab a coffee and walk around the city centre to just familiarise myself with the place. I still get lost every time so I’m living off google maps!
“When I arrived here on my first day everyone was so welcoming. Everyone is really friendly and has made me feel right at home. I don’t even miss Cape Town that much, to be honest. Definitely the weather but that’s about it!
“It’s actually quite sad experiencing this on my own without Ciska (Coetzee’s fiancé) but it is an awesome opportunity that I have and I’m so grateful for it.”
Ciska is currently back in South Africa and will hopefully reunite with her husband-to-be in Bath this summer. In the meantime, Coetzee is getting in as much Call of Duty as he can while the opportunity presents itself as well as a few rounds of golf with a familiar face in Francois Louw.
Coetzee was introduced to the former Bath man and fellow countryman by another who has donned the Blue, Black and White, Jamie Roberts, and has appreciated his help with the admin side to things during his stay in England so far.
For the young Pretorian, Louw’s guidance and friendship is special given he grew up idolising the 76-time capped Springbok and insists he followed Bath’s progress when he was younger because of ‘Flo’.
“I actually started supporting Bath from that time because Francois Louw was my hero growing up. It’s funny how life works and that I’m following in his footsteps by playing for Bath.
"I always tried to follow them and see how they did. Bath has actually always been my team in a way.
“I actually met Flo through Jamie Roberts. We were very good mates when he was at The Stormers and we were actually roommates. When he found out I’d signed with Bath he set up a meeting with Flo in Cape Town and when I arrived here he helped me a lot with certain things.
“Now we’re sort of golf partners and we go and play golf on Sundays – I’m playing golf with my hero and sometimes I just need to pinch myself! I try not to smile too much so he doesn’t think I’m a weirdo!”
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Flo spent over 10,000 minutes representing Bath on the field and developed into a cult hero among the supporters for his unquestionable commitment and consistent performances.
That is now an aim for Coetzee. The Number 8 wants to live and breathe every moment of his time in Blue, Black and White and sees a long future with the club he already holds a lot of admiration for.
“I just want to start enjoying my rugby again and I think I’m definitely at the right place. I just want to make the most of it. I don’t want to be that South African guy who comes here, sees his contract out and then goes back to South Africa.
"I want to make a living here and I want to be one of the top players here in the future. I want to get at least 100 caps, that’s one of my dreams coming here. I want to make it a lifelong journey here.
“Seeing how everything works, seeing how beautiful this place is, I don’t really want to go back! I just want to start playing rugby now and get back on the pitch as soon as possible.
“It’s actually a bit corny but I wouldn’t mind having the same legacy as Flouw – living and playing rugby here for 10 seasons and retiring here in Bath and starting your own company. I think that’s every rugby player’s dream. I would love to live here. I’d love to get my British passport and be able to properly stay here and say I’m a British citizen.
"I love the culture here and love how everything is being done. It’s completely different to South Africa and it’s amazing just to experience it. I want to make the most of it and not just come here for work, I want to make a life here.”