This week, the Queensland Reds host the Stormers from Cape Town in Brisbane as they look to bounce back from defeat at home to the Melbourne Rebels in Round Seven.
It’s a big game for the whole team, but nobody more so than identical South African-born twin props Ruan and Jean-Pierre (JP) Smith, up against the team that they grew up wanting to play for.
RUPA spoke to the boys about their childhood their Rugby journey and their new business, Bros Braai, which is keeping them very busy away from Rugby!
Pete Fairbairn (PF): Lads, thanks for taking the time to chat. Let’s start at the beginning please; talk me through your journey; where you guys were born, when you moved to Australia and where you grew up.
JP Smith (JP): We were born in South Africa in a little town called Vryburg. It’s a country town close to Bloemfontein, and then when we were about eleven or twelve, we moved to Cape Town and went to primary school in a little town called Paarl. Following that, we went to a fairly well-known Rugby school called Paarl Gimnasium.
Ruan Smith (RS): In 2006, our family moved to Australia, and JP and I went to Toowoomba Grammar School. We then moved back to South Africa in 2008 to do Year 12 and spent the next two years back there playing in the Currie Cup. In 2010, we decided to move back to Australia permanently and that’s when we ended up playing Club Rugby at GPS in Brisbane.
PF: Why did your family make the decision to move out to Australia?
RS: Our mum new same friends in Toowoomba and that’s the first place we thought we’d go as a family. We knew that there were good sporting schools there and lots of South Africans in the community, but the main reason we moved as a family from South Africa is because our parents wanted to give us sporting opportunities as kids. The quota system was quite challenging for our Rugby development, and our parents thought that outside of Rugby if that dream didn’t happen then there were greater opportunities for us in Australia more generally.
PF: Are other members of your family diehard Rugby people too?
RS: They all used to play; you know what South Africa is like, it runs deep in our veins and most of our family do have a Rugby background. It wasn’t professional when Dad played but he did play at a high level.
PF: Who were your sporting heroes growing up?
JP: My brother’s was always Joost van der Westhuizen, who passed away from Motor Neurone Disease (MND) a couple of years ago. I was a big Tana Umaga fan myself. We grew up with Rugby as a religion from a small age and we watched every game we possibly could.
PF: And what about outside of Rugby; what other sports were you into?
RS: We played cricket throughout school, we did swimming, we did athletics – we basically played everything we possibly could, and then when we found out we were on the top-heavy side of things we decided to stick to Rugby!
PF: What representative levels did you reach when you were younger?
RS: I played Australian Schoolboys in 2007, and then I went and played South African Schoolboys in 2008.
JP: I didn’t play any provincial teams at that stage, but then we both went to Western Province in 2009 and played together in the Currie Cup.
PF: When you decided to move back in 2010, play for GPS and pursue professional Rugby, you were taking a bit of a risk leaving behind the Currie Cup to play Club Rugby in Australia, weren’t you?
JP: Yes, and the other thing is that we both had pretty big issues with our shoulders too. When we moved back to Australia, we weren’t allowed to work for three years, including playing professional Rugby, so our parents supported us financially until we qualified visa-wise to get a contract and that’s when Jake White called and offered Ruan a contract at the Brumbies, and then me a few months later.
PF: Talk me through that first exposure to Super Rugby, and the move to Canberra
RS: It was pretty surreal. In 2012, I was playing for GPS and got a call from Nick Stiles saying he wanted me to come over to Perth and join the Western Force, and that’s when I made my Super Rugby debut in the last two games of the season. Jake White was coaching the Brumbies, and he called me and told me not to sign anything because he wanted me to move to Canberra. I had to wait a few more months until he called and made me the offer and I signed for three years, and then JP came on board halfway through the 2013 Super Rugby season. We stayed there together until the end of 2015, and I stuck around for a further season and started going to Japan in the Super Rugby off-season.
PF: Playing at the Brumbies under Jake, Stephen Larkham and Laurie Fisher, and alongside so many wonderful players, what benefit did that have for the development of your game?
RS: It was unreal mate. My In that first year we reached the Super Rugby final, which we lost to the Chiefs, but being alongside players like Matt Toomua, Christian Leali’ifano, Ben Alexander, Peter Kimlin, Clyde Rathbone; you learnt so much. I learnt a lot personally from Benny A and Dan Palmer, and being around them and their calmness heading into big games is something that I look back on now and realise how much it helped me.
We were young guys then, so being around so many internationals was an unbelievable experience. Jake was such a technical coach, ‘Bernie’ had such amazing attacking structures and Laurie Fisher remains one of the best lineout, breakdown and maul coaches you’ll ever meet. It was world class coaching, we had to adapt quickly and step up and I like to think we did.
PF: JP, you then went back to South Africa in 2016 and played Super Rugby for the Stormers. What was it like being back after so many years and playing for a team you watched growing up?
JP: Growing up, playing for the Stormers was a great dream of mine. I struggled a little with injuries while I was there, and they spent a lot of time converting me into a tighthead prop, but I did really enjoy the time there.
PF: Now you’re both in your second season at the Reds and back in Queensland. How have you both settled back into life, and how are you enjoying wearing the maroon jersey?
JP: Living in Brisbane and playing for the Reds has been, for a long time, where we both really wanted to be. Our goal since we first ever moved to Australia was to play for the Reds, and unfortunately it didn’t work out that way initially, but we have tried to grab the opportunity with both hands and make the most of it.
Coaches like Brad Thorn and Peter Ryan are world-class in their own ways, and there’s an unbelievable bond and culture with the boys here.
PF: I know (Captain) Samu Kerevi doesn’t want to talk about you guys having a young squad or use that as an excuse if you don’t win a game and I do respect that, but the flipside is that on paper it is younger than most other teams and you guys are two of the most experienced players in the team. Have you taken on unofficial leadership roles in the squad because of that?
RS: I think being the oldest guys at set piece during pre-season, we sort of took it upon ourselves to help out the younger guys with scrummaging technique and those sorts of things. That being said, there’s an overall expectation amongst every single player here to be leaders yourself, and there’s not any level of seniority. We have a lot of Super Rugby experience despite the age of the squad and we don’t like the term young anymore.
PF: Does anybody in the squad particularly excite you in regard to their potential?
RS: For me, Fraser McReight is a standout. He’s got a massive future ahead of him, and I think he will see quite a few minutes this year.
JP: Liam Wright is an automatic leader, and I felt that since the day that I met him. He’s running the lineouts, he’s a very versatile player who can do pretty much everything, so I have big wraps on him.
PF: In Tokyo, that was the first time you guys have started together for the Reds. When you’re playing together, do you feel like you have a sense of what the other one is thinking and how they’re going to react in certain situations?
RS: 100%. You can’t separate us off the field either, we’re essentially the same person with two different names. It’s weird to explain, but if I have the ball, I know exactly whether JP is on my outside or not, what line he will run, what he will do just by him saying that he is there.
PF: With that in mind, do you think you guys would be a good halves combination if you lost 20kg each?
JP: Bloody oath mate.
RS: But then we’d have to give up all the meat!
PF: I’ve seen firsthand on team visits that you guys play a fair few pranks around the Reds and you wear each other’s kit with different names on it. Is that you something you do intentionally?
RS: Not really, to be honest because we do our washing together, we just grab a couple of shirts each and if we have each other’s it doesn’t really matter. But we definitely do confuse the boys! In team reviews, because we run and walk the same, Thorny just says ‘Smith brothers’ when he’s pulling something up from training. If it’s punishment, or if it’s a compliment, we just both take it. People call us the opposite name and we don’t even correct people anymore, we don’t mind.
PF: Have you guys recently become eligible to play for Australia?
JP: That’s correct, we found out a couple of months ago. We thought we qualified at the end of this year, and with Michael Cheika already having his Wallabies squad fairly sorted we didn’t really think about it until our agent (Dallan Murphy) called us and said we’re eligible now.
PF: Even though the Wallaby front row has seemed fairly settled for some time and there’s so much competition for that jersey, there’s no reason why the two of you shouldn’t be in that conversation. Have you given any thought to wearing that jersey?
RS: Of course we have, and if the opportunity ever arises we’d grab it with both hands, but in saying that we know we’d be complete dark horses and we’re just focussing on getting lots of game time a the Reds. I just want to play as well as I possibly can in Super Rugby, it won’t stop us trying and if the opportunity came we’d be ready for it, but it’s not the focus.
RS: Not at all (laughs). We just started making our own sausages and putting it out there on Instagram, and people started asking where they could get it and how could they do it.
We have a great local butcher here in Forest Glen on the Sunshine Coast, and I popped in with a couple of recipes for him and he made up some test batches. We went backwards and forwards and changed a few things, and then we gave some to friends to get their feedback too, and then decided to sell it out of his butcher’s shop. We had been shopping there for meat every second day for about a year, so we did feel comfortable speaking to him about the opportunity and it’s turned out so well.
PF: So where does the business sit now – how much meat are you selling, and what are your plans for it?
RS: In the short term, we are doing deliveries to Brisbane a couple of times a month, about 200kg per delivery. Out of the shop, we sell another 50-60 kgs a week, so it is definitely doing really well, but we don’t really have much more time to spend on it at the moment. We want to build the brand properly, we are talking to a mate in South Australia about making a nice red wine to go with it as well, and we’ve got some restaurants in Brisbane who are keen to stock it as well.
PF: Are they all your own recipes, and how many different flavours of sausage do you have at the moment?
JP: Our grandparents have massive cattle farms in South Africa and do a lot of beef exports, and our recipes are based off their recipes with a few tweaks the way we like it. They’re fairly traditional recipes. Make sure to follow Bros Braai on Facebook and Instagram today!
RS: We’ve got a traditional boerewors, a cheese and garlic version, and a peach one. Recently, we’ve also launched a cheese kassergriller which is like a kransky. There are no preservatives, nothing artificial and no binding agents, just great produce and that’s our philosophy behind it.
PF: Does it help your Rugby to have another focus like this away from training and matches?
RS: Yeah it does, it helps keep you a bit sane and keeps us busy. We have a massive passion for it and having a side project and having ambition is important. It makes us realise that we have to be thinking about life after Rugby.
PF: Finally, I have to know. How much meat do the two of you eat per week?
RS: Probably 10-12 kilograms a week between the two of us, I reckon. I love ribeye steak and lamb as well, and of course our boerwors.
JP: Aussie lamb, not New Zealand lamb!
PF: Thanks for your time fellas, good luck for this weekend and we’ll expect some samples next time we’re up to see you at Ballymore!
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