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Stellenbosch FC may have had a tough start to life in the South African Premiership on the pitch but the foundations are being laid for a bright future off it. The Stellenbosch Academy of Sport (SAS) provides them with top class facilities, but it means little unless this young club establishes an identity and trains accordingly. Head of Performance Ruan Rust, brought in during the off-season from the SAS rugby programme, has a crucial role to play with the PSL newcomers.
At just 27 years of age, Rust seems a perfect fit for the project. He, like Stellenbosch FC, is still young and hungry to learn. He admits football is not the sport he knows most intimately but if he is struggling to adapt, he does not give it away.
“To be honest, I’m Afrikaans, so I grew up with cricket and rugby,” Rust says.
“I grew up in Stellenbosch as well so when I went to school, it was always cricket in the summer and rugby in the winter.
“As I went to Paul Roos, I got educated in English and as I became friends with more English-speaking people, I got introduced to football or soccer — whatever you want to call it.
“I just really enjoyed the game, I enjoyed the atmosphere, the history regarding it and the fans.
“Everything around the sport is really unique, it’s not something that rugby has.
“Rugby is starting to develop it now, I think in the last five years in terms of the following, the fan base and the publicity.”
Rust is eager to talk about the human aspect of sport. He greets everyone at the academy with the same enthusiasm, be they Blitzboks legend Cecil Afrika or the ground staff.
“Being a good football club is important, but being good people is even more important,” he says.
Make no mistake, however: Stellenbosch FC are in the Absa Premiership to compete.
After their eighth-place finish in the 2017/18 NFD they were purchased by SAS, owned by multi-billion Rand investment holding company Remgro.
Rust may come across as gentle in conversation, but he understands the cut-throat nature of professional sport and the investment at stake in Stellenbosch FC.
He adds: “You are your career and if you don’t look after yourself, football is definitely not going to look after you in the long term.
“With my current roles and responsibilities, first and foremost is obviously the performance side of things, we obviously look to make sure that our guys are in the best possible shape.
“There are very few places in South Africa like [SAS] that have accommodation, training, physiotherapy, doctors and food all under one roof or in one quad.
“We’d be silly not to maximise it, that’s why we look at our players and tell our players: ‘there’s no excuses’.”
Rust acknowledges the development gap between athletes from schools with access to quality sporting facilities and those who grew up with fewer resources. It is no secret that many from the latter category in South Africa end up in football.
Fortunately for Stellies, there are players in the squad who lead by example when it comes to meeting Rust’s demands, even more so since the arrivals of some seasoned campaigners.
“There have been some guys who have made some really good improvements and that’s the kind of stuff that you want to see with the players,” Rust believes.
“You want to see guys understanding, trusting you and buying into what we want to achieve.”
“Someone like Sibusiso Mthethwa, I think he’s an outstanding athlete.
“I think he’s extremely committed, he’s worked very hard in the pre-season… physically, he’s one of the best players we’ve had in a while.
“Obviously someone like Marc van Heerden is a top professional – he’s very, very focused on what he eats and how he trains and how he looks after himself.
“One of the local boys like Rafiq de Goede, he’s been with us for two or three seasons – he’s also a cornerstone in terms of the identity we want to create with the team.
“He’s a true pro, he understands that you need to work hard.
“And then on the other side of the coin, someone like Morgan Gould for example, who has come in highly experienced, he also knows exactly what it’s about… he’s someone who even at the age of 36 has got something to prove.”
“We like that he wants to keep going and not shy away from anything.
“I think [the senior players] have brought a level of maturity to a very young squad.
“We brought these guys in and just from their experience and maturity and their understanding of what it means to be a professional, it’s top class.
“It elevates our junior players as well, they look up to these guys.
“You’ve got someone like young Inga [Nyeleka], he can look at someone like Morgan or Marc and speak to them.
“Same with Zweli [Zwelethu Ndlovu] and Bongane [Mathabela], you know, those youngsters who have been involved in our team these past two years.
“They’re very good players, but just being able to understand the other side that isn’t directly related to football can benefit them so much.”
Rust himself is a relative youngster, still a Master’s student at the University of Cape Town but together with his new employers, he has a tremendous opportunity to grow.
Having only been established in 2016 following the relocation of Vasco da Gama, Stellenbosch FC are well ahead of schedule.
After their NFD title win last season, Remgro CEO Jannie Durand was quoted by Stellenbosch Visio as saying: “To be honest we did not expect to be promoted in the first season, it was all part of a five-year plan!
“Getting to see the buy in from the community is amazing.”
Now that they are in the top flight, Rust’s main hope is that Stellenbosch are there to stay.
His aim is to ensure his training methods bear fruit not only with the senior players, but with the first batch of youngsters coming up through the club’s systems.
“Number one priority is for us to stay up, number two is for us to compete,” he adds.
“We want to be a team that’s difficult to play against, competitors.
“We want to assemble guys that have an attitude of ‘never give up, never say die, keep working, we’re going to outwork you’.
“In two years’ time, I want to see five of those MDC guys that are 18 this year in the first team squad, or the Under 16s going into the MDC or whatever the case is.
“Looking down the line in five years time, we still want to be in the [Absa Premiership], we want to be a well-known team and a team that’s respected in terms of the way we do things.”
For Rust, this not only means standing up to their top-flight rivals, but also creating a team that the local community wants to get behind and that prioritises the well-being of its players.
“Every high-performance coach is going to tell you the same thing: they want their athletes to be the best athletes; they want them to be the best at what they do and that’s obviously football.
“My goal is not to create them into the strongest or the fittest, but to develop them and assist the coaches in making them the best footballers.
“Yes, I would like to look back and say our team was the fittest team in the league, or physically we weren’t threatened or intimidated by anybody, but it’s always about the athletes first.
“I think it’s very important that we understand that humans are not robots, so they need to be healthy humans before they can be healthy athletes.” – ETM