I was pretty surprised when the voice on the other end of Ryan Kankowski’s phone turned out to be a girly falsetto. I was surprised even further when I discovered that the mysterious answering service was none other than Bismarck du Plessis. After the inevitable laughter had subsided and Kankowski himself had taken over – his laid-back East Cape drawl being far more what I expected – I learned that the two, clearly good friends, were enjoying a sushi meal together, no doubt while plotting the downfall of Canterbury’s finest.
Along with Sharks fans everywhere, I was pretty keen to hear that the Sharks were going to be better this weekend, after playing so poorly against the Cheetahs. Kankowski was pretty forthright when I asked what the Sharks would be looking to do differently against the Crusaders. “Everything. We need to improve in absolutely every aspect of the game, because the Crusaders are the current title-holders. People might say that they’re a weaker side this year, but we don’t buy that. We got a serious wake-up call against the Cheetahs and we’ve trained hard this week because we know how big the challenge is ahead of us.”
The big number 8 feels there is a great understanding between the Sharks loose forwards and that they complement each other well. “Richie McCaw is the best in the world, but I back Jacques [Botes] to contain him. We’ve got some good loose forward permutations, we’ve played together a lot and we’re all good mates.” Having Jean Deysel back in the mix is an added bonus. “He’s been out for four or five weeks and has really been desperate to get back onto the field,” says Kanko. “We’re lucky in that we’re all pretty versatile players [in the Sharks back row] so we can fill in for each other when required.” I reminded him of his spectacular hand-off on McCaw in last year’s fixture and while allowing himself a chuckle, Kankowski remains pragmatic. “That was last year,” he says, “and you’re only as good as your last game.”
I asked about the pressure of being a “go-to player” in the team – the game breaker who is all-but expected to produce moments of match-winning magic every time he takes the field. “Plum puts a lot of pressure on me, “ Kankowski concedes, “but I thrive on that because it makes me a better player. Plum constantly pushes me to do more and to get better as a player and that can only be a good thing.” Asked about his goals, given that he’s already achieved so much at the tender age of 23, Kanko is again pretty down-to-earth: “I can always get better. I will never be the complete player and I constantly need to improve the things that I do on the field. “ Not one to set arbitrary goals for himself, you get the feeling that Ryan Kankowski is all about the journey, rather than the destination.
His Springbok ambition follows more or less the same course. “If you are playing the best you can for your province and improving with every game, then hopefully you’ll be involved. A lot of guys see the Lions tour as something even bigger than the World Cup and I wasn’t even involved in that, so I’d like to be considered against the Lions.” His view on the fact that he has such competition for the number 8 jersey from the Bulls’ Pierre Spies is that it can only be healthy for the country – as well as for both players – to be pushed hard every week. “It keeps both of us on our toes and makes us perform better, knowing there’s such strong competition for places. It’s the same for any position in the team; there are at least two guys who are good enough to play.”
The sense of belonging and camaraderie that exists within the Sharks team comes across strongly whenever I’m lucky enough to secure a bit of time with one of the players. With Ryan Kankowski, it’s no different. “I love it here – I’m a Durban boy and I love the beach and the lifestyle. Most of all, I love the fact that I’m playing with my friends, “ he says, quashing any speculation that he’d be open to moving on from the Sharks any time in the near future. “There are always guys calling you up and offering you big money to come over [to Europe]”, he concedes, “but I am too happy here now and I just love the weather”.
I asked whether the Durban lifestyle and open Sharks culture didn’t often present distractions for the players – the temptation to take a little focus away from rugby and embrace their rock-star status a little too willingly. Kanko reckons that it’s quite the opposite. “We love having such a close relationship with our fans – it’s a great feeling when you can make a kid’s day by signing something for him after the game. It’s what makes the Sharks so special – we have a very open approach and it helps us to remember why we’re playing this game. “ The guys obviously have one another’s backs as well and the famed “team first” ethos is unlikely to result in anyone going off the rails to the detriment of the cause.
I’d like to thank Ryan (and Bismarck) for allowing Sharksworld a few minutes to get to know him a bit better. Thanks for the chat, Kanko and all the best for the game and the rest of the season.Tweet