The year is 2017 and LeRoux Roets is going backwards. Every single day.
Roets will tell you these were hard times but the going backwards was, in fact, a daily dose of progress.
In a back-aching ritual, Roets would get up before the sun and on most days take a seat on his personal torture device: the rowing machine.
Having been set a goal of losing 30 kilograms in 12 weeks, the big South African would grab the handle and start going backwards.
“It was tough man,” Roets recalls.
“I had to go on a very, very strict diet and every morning at 6am I had to go into the gym. Sometimes I’d Watt bike for an hour but mostly it’d be getting on the rower and rowing 40kms. That was tough.
“40km man. It took me two hours and 40 minutes. That was my best time. It was a long way.”
“At 135kg, Le Roux fits the profile that we have been wanting to add to our squad.”— NSW Waratahs (@NSWWaratahs) January 10, 2019
- NSW Waratahs Head Coach Daryl Gibson
Full Story: https://t.co/Fzvs1ZUm7U#ForTheLoveOfRugby💙🏉 pic.twitter.com/fbqP4Zck8s
To understand why Roets was on a rowing machine trying to shake 30 kilograms, you first need to lay eyes on the new Waratahs recruit.
Big unit doesn’t really cover it. If you think about most footballers being a car tyre, Roets is one of those mining truck wheels.
Forged in the high-veldt shadows of Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, Roets stands at 200cm and – right now – is listed at 135kg.
Everything about the 24-year-old is oversized; hands, shoulders, head and barrell-shape torso. And did we mention head?
But the Roets of today is a slim, trim and athletic version of a younger footballer of just a few years back, who was far bigger but rowing every day to find his way back.
Roets had found himself in a hole the previous year when a move to France in 2016 went wrong, and threatened to de-rail his promising career before it had even started.
“It was just a bit of a balls-up. I lost my love for rugby, picked up a bunch of weight and was in a dark place for a while,” Roets said.
Things had been all sunshine and dominant tackles when Roets was a young man growing up. And up and up and up.
Size – gifted through the DNA of a tall paternal line and a maternal line of “big Afrikaaners” - determined he would not only play rugby, but be a star of his school and district too.
“I was always one of the bigger kids but I started getting, aaah, prominent, in high school,” Roets says.
“I just skyrocketed length-wise and was pretty much bigger than all the other players.”
Roets was courted by several provinces but with former Lions coach Johan Ackerman attached to his school, the big lock began playing junior rep footy for the Lions.
He switched back to the Bulls after a year and played under 19s, under 20s and under 21s in the sky blue jersey, but when Roets’ career path began to look clear in South Africa, his then-agent came with a proposal.
Would he like to play in France? And not just for any team, either. There was an offer from Racing Metro in Paris. Mega club in a mega city.
“It was overwhelming,” Roets said.
“I heard Dan Carter was there, Joe Rockocoko. To get the chance to learn a few things from Ali Williams, other great players. Being 20, 21 years old, hearing those names and with an agent pushing things down your throat, it seemed a no-brainer.
“So not knowing what the consequences were at the time, I moved to France and to be honest, I was not actually ready for that big a step.”
The problem for Roets was the nature of the deal.
It wasn’t a full Top 14 contract, but instead Roets was signed up an “espoirs” player, or effectively a development squad member. He rarely saw the big names, let alone played with them.
“I went there, didn’t get a lot of game time,” Roets says.
‘I started out in the espoirs there and lost my feet in rugby, because I just wasn’t playing at the level I was told I was going to play, with the professionals.
“I played a few games with them but not a lot. I played for their academy side most of the time.”
Playing at a level that wasn’t particularly challenging – aerobically or mentally - Roets “picked up a bunch of weight” and when French rugby changed their import quota rules later that season, Racing Metro let him go.
The now ex-agent promised to find him another club, and didn’t.
“I ended up having to buy my own ticket back to South Africa,” Roets says.
“I still want to play rugby and didn’t know why it’d gone wrong. But I’d picked up a lot of weight, and when I went for a trial at the Sharks they were impressed with my skill set, but unfortunately my weight was a bit too much.”
Somewhere north of 160kg, Roets’ size was even too big in a land where high-veldt giants are not uncommon.
But Jimmy Stonehouse, the coach of Currie Cup side the Pumas, knew there was still a footballer inside of Roets.
And so he set him the challenge, to see if the lock still had the hunger. He had to drop 30 kilograms in three months.
“They gave me a chance but made an ultimatum - dump the weight and they’ll give me a contract,” Roets said.
Which brings us back to the rowing machine and all that backwards progress.
Roets kept yanking the oar, eating clean and spinning the Watt bike. He earned the contract and returned to the rugby field.
Soon he was back playing in the Currie Cup for Pumas and loving life again.
“Playing with the juniors (in France) and stuff, it just wasn’t demanding in terms of me needing to mobile,” Roets said.
“It was basic rugby. Nothing difficult in getting around the field. But coming back it was totally different. I sat down with the coach and he said “this is what’s expected”.
“The rugby is fast but by shaking that weight, I started enjoying my rugby again.
“And as soon as that happened, things clicked back into place. And doors opened - I got offers from several places.”
There were nibbles from South Africa Super Rugby outfits, and even some French interest again, but the first shot Roets was given of fulfilling his dream to play Super Rugby came in a left-field phone call.
“Randomly my agent told me one day, ‘hey listen, the Waratahs have their eyes on you’,” he said.
“I got a call from Daryl (Gibson), he said: ‘we’re keen to get you here, we’re impressed with your Currie Cup season and have seen the videos’.
“He said they’d done well in Super Rugby but they needed one more big ball-carrier. Knowing that’s something I love to do, run the ball or hit a bloke, I said ‘thank you coach’. I was a bit overwhelmed.”
Overwhelmed and nervous, too.
Would a move to Sydney be Paris all over again? He didn’t want to go back to that time.
“That was a tricky part. I told him I was afraid because if what happened in France,” Roets says.
“I had always wanted to play Super Rugby and I love South Africa but I am that time in my life where I feel I need to make a mark.
"The big man upstairs put me on the right path and gave me this opportunity. So I said yes. And here I am.”
Roets arrived in Sydney in January and jumped straight into work with the Tahs.
Roets, said Gibson, was the abrasive forward they’d been searching for, to carry hard and hit hard and push hard: the same role performed so powerfully in the 2014 title-winning side by Jacques Potgieter.
As an admirer himself, Roets humbly rejects headlines of him being “another Potgieter” and says he was overwhelmed when his compatriot tweeted his best wishes about the move to Sydney.
“We sent each other a few messages. He was telling me ‘listen this is a great place, you are going to enjoy it’,” Roets said.
“It was a great feeling. At Loftus, and for South Africa, he is a player that always played with physicality and demander others bring physicality too.
“Those are the shoes I want to fill. I want to see if my foot fits, and to carry that tradition forward.”
Roets has shown promise in training for the Tahs and in two trial appearances off the bench. Whether he makes a Super Rugby debut in round one remains to be seen.
But Waratahs forwards coach Simon Cron is hard at work with Roets, saying he is a player of “great promise”.
“There’s lots to work on with LeRoux but he has two things going for him: he’s massive obviously and he’s willing to learn,” Cron says.
Cron refuses to buy into the Skelton-compromise theory: if you play a huge 140kg lock, you’ll get power but lose a lineout jumper.
“LeRoux is perfectly capable of jumping, and not just at two either,” he says.
“When you think about it, it’s only another 10kg each for his lifters than a 120kg guy, and they can do that easy,” Cron says.
Fast feet are the key at Super Rugby level and above, says Cron. Both at lineout time and across the park.
And here, believes Roets, is where his secret weapon lies. Thanks to his Dad, who is tall and skinny long distance runner - yes, skinny - Roets says he has running in his legs.
“Nobody expects me to move. I weigh 135, 137kg and no-one expects me to be mobile and I love that. I love that. I am mobile,” he says.
“I want to get over that advantage line but also when we are on the defence, I want to tackle guys back and get green rucks.”
Roets is adjusting to life in bustling Sydney, slowly, and is hoping his long-term girlfriend Nadia can come over and join him permanently at some stage.
But the Waratahs, he says, have taken him in wonderfully and there’s no danger of a second Parisian slide.
Not only is he among Wallabies and top-line professionals now, there other motivation is a now deep-seated hatred of rowing machines.
“Unfortunately I have one of those statures where I can never take the foot off the pedal, otherwise I will pick up weight,” he said.
“That’s one of my burdens but it’s also a good thing.
“It will never let me lose my focus. I am here to make a difference.”