When Your Sharks announced the signing of Stormers forward Ernst van Rhyn last summer, it’s fair to say plenty of Sharks fans didn’t know too much about the Cape Town native. But six months on, everything has changed as ‘Ernie’ has made the number six shirt his own, soared to the top of the Premiership tackle charts….and he’s fallen in love with his new, adopted home too.
And while a shoulder injury means he’s not available at the moment, that hasn’t wiped the smile of Ernie’s face.
“It would be tough to find one word to describe my first six months here, but I think it’s been great,” he said. “It’s been an amazing first six months. Obviously, coming over, you’ve got certain doubts, but my wife Bianca and I don’t think it could have gone any better on or off the field.
“On the field, obviously, it’s going great. In my individual game, I feel I’ve really developed, and seen a lot of growth. But also, I think, getting into a new team environment, with different perspectives, has been great.
“They enjoy me, I enjoy the guys, I enjoy the team and I love Manchester.
“I was interested to see how I was going to react to a new city and a new country and a new set of teammates. But now, looking back on my time here – and it’s still early days – it’s been brilliant. It was definitely the right move, at the right time, to the right club.
“I feel like I can be myself here and my teammates can enjoy me for who I am, and I can also enjoy the different characters on the team for who they are.”
A former junior Springbok captain, Ernst has long been marked out as a leader and just six months in, he’s already part of Sharks leadership groups on and off the field.
“I appreciate the trust and the potential they’ve seen in me,” he said. “I think I’ve just been blessed with the ability to be a leader and I really appreciate that they see it.
“I think moving here was, in that sense, also a big growth for me to see how I could find my role in a new structure. I’ve learned when to speak up, when sometimes to just try and lead by example and when to take a step back to support whoever.
“Obviously I want to repay the trust they’ve put in me but good teams have lots of leaders.
“I think my role at this stage, technically, might be the breakdown or defence maybe, depending on who else is in the mix that week. But I think the most important thing for me at this stage is just to try and bring energy.
“Obviously I try and work as hard as I can and try and measure myself and push myself to be one of the hardest workers on the field or in the game.
“I don’t want to be a guy who says a lot but I think once I’m in my flow and working hard, it’s quite easy for guys to follow – I hope that attitude is sort of contagious.”
With more successful tackles (164) and more dominant tackles (16) than anyone else in the league, it’s clear to see why Ernst fits in so well in a side that prides itself on physicality. But putting in the big hits is only one part of a game that’s developing all the time.
“I think the tackle thing is obviously a great step for me but being top of a table is not something I’m chasing after,” he said. “I think it comes back to the work rate.
“The harder I work, the more positions I can be in to contribute, if it’s a tackle or whatever it might be. Obviously, there are different parts of my game that I want to develop, maybe carry more, stuff like that, but the work rate thing has always been my X-factor.
“I haven’t got the quickest feet, and I’m not a massive guy, but I pride myself on my work. It was the same at the Stormers but I just think I’ve found a different flow here.
“It’s nothing against the Stormers, but this new environment has given me new energy, and new drive.”
So does Ernst see himself as a different player now compared to a year ago?
“I think I am different,” he said. “I’ve said it before, but obviously game time helps because it builds your confidence and you start finding your flow. I’m grateful for the opportunities Alex has given to me to actually get that going.
“In the last six months, developing as a player has been massive. Obviously the game here is a bit different and the weather is more of a factor, but I think it suits me.”
Ernst was part of the travelling party in Cape Town last week, but the 26-year-old says a fleeting visit to his old stomping ground didn’t make him pine for home.
“It was my first time going back to Cape Town and it did feel like going home, especially because I went to my parents’ house one night,” he said.
“But I didn’t have any doubts or feeling that I wanted to stay. It was great to see the Stormers guys, but at the end of the week it was like ‘OK, job done, we’re going back now.’
“It was great for my parents and Bianca’s parents to see that we are actually really happy. My parents told me they could see that I’m thriving and that’s a massive deal for them.”
Your Sharks defied the odds in Cape Town and despite a raft of injuries, managed to secure a bonus point against the Stormers. But the performance and the result came as no surprise to Ernst.
“They’re a world-class team so I think for us to compete at that level and to stay in the game was great,” he added. “We made one or two basic errors that let them in but there are a lot of positives to take.
“Some of the younger guys that people maybe didn’t even know in SA didn’t look out of place, and I think the Stormers had a bit of a shock because they maybe thought they’ll run away with it.
“But this team has plenty of resilience and we’ll never be beaten for effort. Now we’ve got one or two small things that we need to tweak and put into place, and I think we’ll be in a great place.
“We’ve lost a couple of games but as Al always says, you don’t become a shit team in a week or two.
“We still have all the basics and it’s now just about filling in one or two things, and being a bit sharper on one or two things.
“Obviously we were in the final last year so we know we can get there. Actually being in the environment now for six months, a lot of belief has grown in me and I really believe we could go really, really far and do something great.
“And that’s not just me, it’s in the whole squad.
“We’ve done this. We can do it again.”