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Written By: Adam McQueen
Sacramento, California - The game was on a knife edge. Canada were clawing their way back in the hopes of earning an elusive win against their American counterparts. The momentum was shifting faster than the blustery Sacramento winds. After a famous victory against Argentina XV a week earlier, the United States could not afford to slip up for the first time in seven encounters versus their northern rivals.
Enter Hanco Germishuys – the youngest player on the pitch, prepared to make the largest impact.
The ball bobbled into the 21 year old’s hands following a series of hectic offloads, and Germishuys suddenly found himself with a glimmer of space. The South African-born flanker then did what he does best; bouncing off three would-be tacklers and emphatically diving across the line for his first international try. The score reaffirmed the Eagles grip on the CANAM series, opening the floodgates for an eventual 29-10 victory.
Although Germishuys’ eye-popping 2018 Americas Rugby Championship placed him firmly on the map at the international stage, anyone following the young man’s journey since he set foot in Omaha, Nebraska knew that he has long been destined for Eagles success.
Even Hanco himself had been preparing for international competition for quite some time.
“Ever since I was a little kid touching a rugby ball it has always been my dream to play at the top level,” Germishuys explains. “I always wanted to play for the Springboks until I moved here [United States]. That’s when I fell in love with the USA and was keen to pursue representing the American national team instead.”
Like many people born in rugby-crazed countries, the sport flows through Germishuys' blood. He grew up watching his dad and uncle play in the Northern Cape, and even started playing himself at the age of five.
Then, as his family were preparing to migrate to the United States, Hanco made one demand.
“I just told my dad that I would only come if they had rugby,” laughs Germishuys. “Thankfully they did, and that’s what got me here. Nebraska is quite similar to South Africa in many ways. The people, the schools, and how everything looks around here is a little different – but other than that I adapted quickly to it because it’s fun to learn something new.”
'Adapted quickly' is something of an understatement. Germishuys soon became a four-time High School All-American at Westside High School, captained the USA Youth Olympic squad, and represented the Junior All-Americans (U20s) team for three straight years.
It was during his final stint with the Junior All-Americans in 2016 where Germishuys truly shone. While captaining his side at the Junior World Rugby Trophy in Zimbabwe, just north of his native South Africa, the backrower earned player of the tournament honours. Germishuys experience prior to the World Trophy – playing at the Gloucester academy and the Denver Stampede of the now defunct PRO league – opened his eyes as to how the professional environment could elevate his game.
“I had preseason with Denver prior to the World Trophy, so I was a little ahead of others by being in that professional environment. Then straight after I got back, I was invited into the Eagles camp.”
However, the transition to senior men’s rugby can be a tall order for players who physically dominate at the age-grade level. It is not as easy to manhandle opponents, something Germishuys quickly noticed.
“Once I played my first game for the Eagles it was like ‘oh yeah this is something different’. There are a lot bigger boys than me on the field now,” says Germishuys. “But going to senior rugby was fairly smooth because I had so much help going into it with people supporting me. The first camps I went to I was just there to observe and learn. People were always there to help.”
Fortunately, the people that Germishuys has been able to learn from is a backrow corps that possesses a wealth of professional experience. The Eagles loose forwards are arguably the most talented positional group in the entire squad. For Germishuys it has been crucial to soak up as much knowledge from his peers for his own development.
“Todd [Clever] has helped a lot with him being at Austin Elite. Whenever I can I try and pick his brain, ask him for advice of what to do and when to do it. Cam Dolan, Tony Lamborn, and [Andrew] Duratalo have all been big influences too,” explains Germishuys. “When I am in camp, Duratalo is always the one telling me what I should be doing. It has helped me so much listening to the older guys with the experience they have.”
Whatever Duratalo has been telling the former U20 captain to do is certainly paying off. Germishuys has developed into a well-rounded weapon in the men’s game, refining his skills whilst still maintaining his brash, unrelenting playing style that originally drew the attention of coaches across the country.
In his first year at Austin Elite during the inaugural Major League Rugby season, Germishuys was voted the MVP of the team by fans, and earned a place on MLR First XV of the regular season. He finished third in the league on the try scoring list, despite missing all of June due to his Eagles commitments. Although Germishuys entered the competition with an understandable amount of trepidation, the flanker quickly became one of the must-see attractions in Major League Rugby.
“I was very skeptical about it [MLR] because with what had happened in PRO rugby. I was not very 'bought in' to Major League Rugby because I was afraid that something similar might happen again. So, during the season I just did what I could to be the best that I could be in the gym and doing extras on the pitch so that I could make a name for myself at the Eagles level,” Germishuys notes. “Then, after three or four weeks you could start to see more people involved in the league – there were a lot more fans in attendance, and a lot of people across America started buying into it.”
The MLR began to blossom by season’s end, each team anchored by a handful of prominent Eagles talent. Austin Elite Assistant Coach, Pedrie Wannenburg, was adamant that they acquire Germishuys to spearhead their initial squad after playing with the youngster at Denver during the PRO Rugby season.
“We saw he had great potential and knew we had to bring him down to Austin,” Wannenburg explained. “Hanco has the ability to lead, he stands up for what he believes in, and brings out the best in teammates.”
Germishuys’ leadership on and off of the field did not go unnoticed. The flanker was selected to start in every match for the United States during the June Summer Series, and has been an instrumental force behind the Eagles undefeated 2018 campaign.
Germishuys and other domestic talent now playing at the professional level has bolstered the United State’s depth. It has also made the integration with returning overseas professionals far easier.
“We have so many good players now it's hard to pick who starts. So, if you start, the guy on the bench is just as good as you. That's a really good thing because everyone is fighting for their spot… the overseas players are also willing to help anyone. When they see something wrong they speak up and fix the situation right away. They bring a lot of experience and a lot of talent.”
Although the increased depth of the Eagles squad has been a catalyst for their improvement, newly introduced Head Coach Gary Gold is the driving force behind their perfect start to 2018. Under Gold the Eagles play a direct, physical brand of rugby which perfectly aligns with Germishuys’ approach to the game. The Eagles now have a clearly defined gameplan which has resonated with the players, Germishuys in particular.
“[Gold] has brought a lot of positivity and experience. I think he is one of the greatest coaches I have ever had, personally,” the backrower explains. “If you ask him a question he's willing to explain it to you and explain the details of what needs to be done. It puts everybody on the same page. He tells the team what he wants. When we have to switch on, we switch on, and then when we are done everybody can joke around and enjoy themselves.”
It is this environment that led to the Eagles capturing their greatest victory to date. The United States toppled Scotland 30-29 in June, securing a first ever win over a tier one nation.
And, of course, Germishuys was at the heart of the historic moment. The flanker scored the momentum-shifting try early in the second half, gifting the Eagles a lead that they would not relinquish.
When reflecting on the match, the normally reserved Germishuys struggles to contain his excitement. “It is definitely one of my best rugby memories – the feeling during the game, the moment after. The crowd was unbelievable... every move you made you could feel everyone behind you!”
Although the result took the rugby world by surprise, those in the Eagles camp did not expect anything less.
“Two days prior to the game, everybody had such a good vibe going. Before the kickoff everybody was excited. At halftime we weren't far behind, but in the locker room we just knew that we had it – we could do this if we wanted to,” reflects Germishuys. “Then everybody went out and did their jobs. It was so comfortable on the field because you knew that the guy next to you was going to make the tackle.”
The win in Houston may be Germishuys’ favourite sporting moment yet, but it looks like only the starting point for the tireless flanker.
“Hanco will be one of the big names in USA Rugby,” explains Austin coach Wannenburg. “With a bit of fine tuning on his defense he will be a force to be reckoned with.”
The biggest stage in international rugby is next on the radar.
“This season I want to go full-out in Austin and prepare the best I can, because the World Cup is coming around and I want to be in the best shape I have ever been in my life. I want to make that World Cup squad,” states Germishuys. “It is going to be exciting building towards the World Cup. We have the Maori All Blacks in November and Ireland in Dublin so it will be good seeing how we compare against those guys.”
These are massive tests on the horizon for both Germishuys and the Eagles. Rest assured, Hanco will take them on in the manner that he knows best – relentlessly, and with a trail of would-be tacklers in his wake.