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Rugby News

Liebenberg prepared for the tough stuff

Sitting on the grassy knoll in between the indoor training facilities and fresh-cut pitches at Oval Park, just three weeks in to his Tigers tenure, Hanro Liebenberg opens up on his decision to pack up his life in Pretoria at just 23 years of age and make the move to Leicester ahead of the 2019/20 season.

In a straight-talking, wide-ranging interview, the new recruit also looks back on his rugby journey through to this point, chats about his fellow new recruits from South Africa, head coach Geordan Murphy, meals prepared by Will Spencer and why he's set on returning Tigers to the top, as well as much more.

Hanro Liebenberg says the decision to make the move from his home nation of South Africa and settle in Leicester was a “no brainer” and, after just three weeks at Tigers, the 23-year-old is loving life alongside his new team-mates in his new hometown.

“It’s the club with the most tradition and history, as well as the most successful in England,” says Liebenberg, sitting on the grass at the club’s Oval Park training ground.

“For me, it was a no brainer to come to Tigers when the opportunity came.

“I’m just soaking it all in at the moment and making the most of it, I love it so far.”

Despite his young age, Liebenberg made almost 50 appearance for the Bulls in Super Rugby after making his debut for the Pretoria-based side at just 19 and also spent time in Paris on a short-term deal with Stade Francais in 2018.

Standing at 6ft 5 1⁄2 inches and weighing more than 17 stones, Liebenberg’s addition to a Tigers forward pack already boasting the likes of Dan Cole, Ellis Genge, Tom Youngs, Sione Kalamafoni, Will Spencer and Tatafu Polota-Nau brings with it a sense of return to a style Leicester is synonymous with - tough, uncompromising and physical.

I won’t be shying away from the physical aspect of the game

The back-rower’s addition also comes alongside the signing of Nephi Leatigaga, Calum Green and Jordan Taufua, who will each bring their own sense of strength up front which will excite Tigers supporters far and wide ahead of the fast-approaching 2019/20 season.

Just ask the man himself and he’ll tell you what to expect.

“I like ball in hand, I like to take on defenders and I’m very comfortable in contact,” he says when the question is put to him.

“Look, I won’t be shying away from the physical aspect of the game.”

Not long into a first conversation and early impressions suggest not only will this man-mountain have an impact on the Gallagher Premiership, but a maturity beyond his 23 years shines through as another huge positive to come with his addition to the club.

Then, when looking back on his decorated age-grade days in South Africa with Junior Springboks sides, it comes as no surprise this young man has held leadership positions throughout sides he has featured within.

You can decide to make it work or lay down and give up - I don’t want to give up, nobody here does

A former Springboks Under-20s captain, Liebenberg represented his country at the Junior World Championship alongside another new Tiger, EW Viljoen, in 2015 and himself remembers the group as a “brilliant” outfit.

“I was lucky enough to captain that side,” he recalls.

“We had quite a good year that year and a brilliant team, which EW [Viljoen] was also part of.

“I knew him before arriving and Jaco [Taute] as an opposition player and Springbok, but not any of the other players in this squad personally.”

Ideally, he would have known all of them before touching down at Tigers but has fast-tracked relationships with his new team-mates during a week-long pre-season camp on an army barracks in Aldershot in just his second week at the club.

As well as living in close quarters during the hottest week the country has seen in years, which also involved a gruelling collection of rugby and fitness sessions and team building, leadership and bonding experiences, Liebenberg was also ‘shacked up’ with fellow giant Will Spencer when he first arrived - who offered his home and cooking services out for the new kid on the block.

“I was lucky enough to be living with Will when I first arrived,” says Liebenberg with a grin.

“He’s a very, very good host and has made me some very nice dinners as well.

“The rooms are quite big in his house and roof is quite high, thankfully!”

Well known as a back-rower, it may well be that Liebenberg packs down in the second row alongside Spencer during his debut season after playing there as well as on both sides and at the back of the scrum throughout his career.

However, although he wore the No7 shirt in the recent Super Rugby season for the Bulls, Liebenberg doesn’t believe it is quite the same as what an open-side flanker is asked to do in English rugby.

“I was a South African 7 this season, which is probably more like a 6 over here,” he says.

“I’ve played in the second row as well, but if you give me any jumper I’ll be happy. I just want to play, I want to contribute and be a part of the team.”

A welcome response for supporters, his new team-mates and - above all - new boss Geordan Murphy, who was the key player in getting his signature and enticing him away from his beloved Bulls, where nobody could have blamed the youngster for remaining in a bid to gain international honours under the nose of the Springboks coaching staff.

On top of Murphy’s salesman techniques, it’s that “physical” nature of the game that seems to have also helped sway him in making the move.

“I felt I had been in the system since I left school and it was a case of wanting something new, wanting to challenge myself,” responds Liebenberg when asked why he would choose to leave the country and the competition he has called home since breaking through as a teenager.

“The Premiership is high-quality rugby and it’s a great opportunity to express myself.

“I’m looking forward to the physical aspect of the Premiership and those line-out and scrum battles.

“I had a video conversation with Geordan, which was really positive, and he shared a background of the club and the opportunity to play in the Premiership for a club like this, which I loved hearing about and believed was a great opportunity for me.”

As well as the “opportunity” to join a club of Leicester’s standing in the world of rugby, it would appear that for this mature, young man in the very early days of his rugby journey, the chance to help lift the Tigers back to the top of English and European rugby is another driving factor.

I just want to play, I want to contribute and be a part of the team

Two successive seasons of missing out on the Premiership finals and three without a game in Europe’s knockout stages, Tigers lowest-ever finish of 11th in the league is foreign to many players and members of the club.

However, Liebenberg has been here before - with the Bulls - and sees a silver lining in the position he and his team-mates are heading in towards the new campaign, which he’s relishing and says nobody at the club is accepting as the new normal.

“We were in a similar position at the Bulls two season ago, so it’s not new for me,” he says.

“You can decide to make it work or lay down and give up - I don’t want to give up, nobody here does.

“You are a bit of an underdog and that’s always nice, I love the underdog story.

“I am looking forward to contributing to the success this club is going to have. That is what I am here to do.”

Given his size and straight-talking approach, obviously, we did not disagree.

Of what we have seen from Hanro in the past and heard today, this new Tiger is one to get excited about.