Written By: Mark Janzen

Like every rugby-playing South African boy, Riekert Hattingh grew up dreaming of playing in the World Cup.

Next summer, Hattingh – a 23-year-old up-and-coming No. 8 hailing from Pretoria – has plans to make his childhood fantasy a reality – with an Eagle emblazoned on his chest.

The burly forward, who is set to make his debut with the Seattle Seawolves of the MLR later this month, has June 1, 2019 circled in his calendar. That’s the date when Hattingh will become eligible to represent USA Rugby, having completed the World Rugby required 36 consecutive months of residence. Less than four months later, the rugby world will descend upon Japan for the ninth edition of the quadrennial championship. The son of a former Springbok, Drikus Hattingh, hopes he’s there, donning the Red, White and Blue.

While it’s no sure thing Hattingh would even make what seems to be an ever-improving American roster – one that earned the America 1 spot, for the first time ever beating Canada in their World Cup qualifying series – the 6-foot-5, 235-pound specimen has his mind set on putting on a show that can’t be ignored.

For Hattingh, who played age-grade rugby with the Blue Bulls Rugby Union in South Africa before a stint with the club’s senior side during the 2016 Currie Cup, the next few months with the Seawolves will be his best chance to impress upon the USA Rugby brass.

And for Seattle fans, having a hard-charging, hard-hitting and highly-motived Hattingh in their corner is a tantalizing proposition.

In fact, the bearded back rower, who would seem to fit in quite nicely within the facial aesthetics of his new city, might just be the perfect poster boy for both the Seawolves – and for the sport itself within the U.S.

“I like the American lifestyle,” Hattingh says. “It’s exciting being part of the next big thing. Everyone talks about America being the sleeping giant of rugby, so being able to come over and be part of the growth is what I enjoy.”

Hattingh made his first foray to the U.S. in 2015, joining the Austin Blacks before returning home to take a contract with the Blue Bulls. In 2016, he returned to the U.S., earning a spot with the Ohio Aviators partway through the first (and only) PRO Rugby season. Following that, he remained in Ohio, spending time playing with Scioto Valley/Columbus Rugby in 2016-17 while also coaching with the Tiger Rugby academy.

More recently, this past fall, he suited up for the Dark ‘n Stormy Misfits, helping them to a tournament title at the 50th Annual Aspen Ruggerfest.

Since then, and since his mid-November signing with the Seawolves, he’s been gearing up for Seattle’s inaugural campaign – one that will no doubt see Hattingh play a major role.

While Hattingh is on the younger end of the veteran Seawolves side, his pedigree and experience has him very much amongst Seattle’s key contributors.

“He’s a good leader in the forward pack and he runs all the lineouts,” says teammate Mike Palefau, 36, who has USA Rugby caps with both the 15s and sevens teams. “He pretty much teaches the guys all the little tricks that the casual fan might not even notice. He’s really good at breaking down techniques in the rucks and counterucks and those sorts of things.”

Growing up under the watchful eye of his internationally capped father, who had a menacing presence on the pitch himself, would have taught Riekert some of those tricks while setting him up for the success he has already begun to achieve.

“He never pressured me into playing rugby, but he said ‘If you choose rugby, I’ll be honest with you and give you honest feedback,’” Hattingh says. “Sometimes it was tough to hear but it was good and I appreciated it. It’s what made me into what I am today.”

Here’s betting it’ll be that very player who Seattle fans will come to know and love in short order – an imposing figure, who has an endearing streak of physicality, both with ball in-hand and without. Something it seems doesn’t come with an on/off switch.

“He loves smashing people,” Palefau says. “He does these little shoulder checks in training and I’ve been on the receiving end of a few of them. He definitely keeps you on your toes at all times.”

There’s a chance Hattingh has found a long-term home on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. 

If things go well with the MLR and if his World Cup dream unfurls next fall, Hattingh and his beard could well become a fixture in the U.S.

And that could be a very good thing – perhaps even a well-manicured sign of the state of rugby in the country and the optimistic canvas that awaits.

“If the MLR keeps on building on this year and gaining momentum, it wouldn’t be necessary for me to leave,” he says. “If (the MLR) keeps on growing every year, I’d rather stay in America.”

Seattle meet Riekert. Riekert meet Seattle. One would think you’re going to get along just fine.

 

 

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