Harlequins’ South African powerhouse goes from working-class coal mining town to chasing the double

James While
Harlequins Irne Herbst during the round of 16 Investec Champions Cup match between Harlequins and Glasgow Warriors at the Twickenham Stoop.

Harlequins Irne Herbst during the round of 16 Investec Champions Cup match between Harlequins and Glasgow Warriors at the Twickenham Stoop.

With Harlequins through to the Investec Champions Cup semi-finals and in contention for a Premiership play-off place, they’re now fighting a battle on two fronts where every game is, in essence, a knockout match.

Quins is famed for its characters and noted for its inclusive approach to all types of people and backgrounds. Lurking deep in the engine room of the scrum is the larger-than-life figure of South African lock Irné Herbst, a massive bearded classical tighthead lock, as colourful a personality as any within the great London club.

Planet Rugby’s James While caught up with Herbst to discuss life in the Premiership and beyond.

Pack mentality

“You know, I was brought up in Witbank, a mining town on the east side of Pretoria where rugby is a defining part of the culture,” he said.

“My old man played for the Pumas as they were back then – a tighthead in classical South African fashion – and with two brothers, one of them also a tighthead, I guess scrummaging was something I was destined for from day one.

“But in Witbank, rugby really does define the social scene – it’s a mining town so a lot of coal, dust and dirt and all working-class people. My dad was also in that industry itself, so he loved rugby – it was almost a natural progression for someone working in that field. When I took a ball in my hand, I realised that from a very early age how much I enjoyed the sport and played a lot with my brothers. It’s fair to say that they and my dad were the force behind all the stuff I learned and for that I am always grateful.

“It’s a tough old town where people work with their hands and aren’t afraid of getting them dirty either. We lived about an hour from Pretoria and of course, Loftus Versfeld, where I grew up watching the Bulls with Heyneke Mayer in charge. We had some decent rugby schools in the Mpumalanga area, but I was lucky to get to a good Pretoria High School (Hoërskool Waterkloof) which really allowed me to both develop, but also get into the periphery of the Bulls youth programme.

“At that time, I was most definitely playing as a lock, but the Bulls were stacked in that position, including the likes of the great Victor Matfield and a few others and for a time they wanted to convert me to a tighthead. A tighthead at 6’5”? You must be kidding me!

“Someone like Fin Baxter or Joe Marler would fold me in two if I tried to play there, so lock it was and lock it stayed and I love my position and wouldn’t really want to play anywhere else. Although on reflection tightheads earn a heck of a lot more than mere locks, so maybe I missed out there! My son is very young just now and loves playing with the ball, but I keep telling him, ‘to earn the bucks, play at three!”

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Harlequins move

Spells with the Kings in Port Elizabeth, a time Herbst describes as amongst his favourite rugby experiences due to the friendly, easy going nature of the city, and then Benetton, perhaps saw him fade a little off the mainstream rugby radar. But when Quins came knocking, the big lock simply couldn’t pass up a chance to join one of the most celebrated clubs in rugby.

“Quins are a big brand and growing up, I loved watching them against the likes of Munster and Leinster in the European Cup. So I understood who they were and what they stood for,” he said.

“Putting that into a current perspective, we are an attractive side with attack very much part of our philosophy. Guys like Danny Care and Marcus Smith are rugby geniuses and two of the hardest working and most professional men in the game. But they’re humble too; they appreciate the work of the tight five and they know that unless we fire as a unit, then they cannot do the things they do.

“I’d like to think I bring a degree of physical focus to that part of Quins. I am well aware of my role and of the things I do well: the mauling, hitting rucks, the short carries, making my tackles and of course, anchoring the scrum behind my big boet Will Collier!

“But believe it or not, I’m loving the attacking ethos of the team and getting much more confident and expressive with ball in hand. We are always learning and evolving as a team and I’m very open about the fact that my ball skills have improved greatly since being here, as a result of our philosophy and the guys we have around us leading that part of the game.”

Beating Bordeaux

Last Saturday, we saw one of the best Quins performances in Europe when they toppled Bordeaux at home by a single point to confound the pundits.

Herbst wasn’t in the starting side but was named at the last minute as Joe Launchbury pulled up with a muscular issue, leaving the former Bull facing a 60-minute shift in the searing heat.

Whilst much has been made of the ‘swing the bat’ mantra that Quins adopted before the match, Herbst points to a moment when he believed he knew that Bordeaux were there for the taking.

“In truth, both Joe and I were carrying knocks, and we didn’t really know which one would play,” Herbst said.

“But Joe struggled through the warm-up, and I knew I had to get through the game somehow despite carrying a couple of injuries, which wasn’t ideal.

“In the first scrum, we got a little bit of a nudge on. Will Collier is fantastic at staying square and legal to get the drive going, whilst Fin (Baxter) is really skilled at controlling the height and pinching in so we’re all going straight and as one, aiming almost 1 o’clock to stop the natural wheel.

“When we had that third scrum (which led to a penalty, touch kick, a lineout, and the penalty try) and went through them, then I knew we had them upfront. Once we had the platform then we knew we could score and then it was about getting into positions and executing; it was a fantastic 23-man performance, one I’m really proud to be part of.”

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Losing the beard?

Quins’ next European sojourn is a trip to face Toulouse in the semi-finals, a tall order. In addition, their last four Premiership fixtures see them play potential rivals for the play-off in every instance, a schedule that will undoubtedly test the depth of their squad. Herbst is a big believer in playing each game as it comes, but he’s under no illusions as to the magnitude of the tests ahead.

“Sale away on Sunday is going to be a seriously physical game,” Herbst added.

“They’re a big side who pride themselves on power and a direct approach. This is also a must-win for them; they’re short on bonus points so they have to go full tilt at this otherwise their challenge is over, so we know we’re in for an onslaught.

“It’s key we focus on the now rather than projecting beyond because every match we play is effectively a knock-out rugby game, and we can’t afford to have a drop off in the standards we’ve set ourselves otherwise we’ll win nothing.

“For me, I will be happy with one cup, but, if you force me to choose, I was brought up watching those European matches and they have a romance that’s pretty special.

“But I have one worry. I have kind of promised that if we win one, the beard is going, and we’ll do it for charity! I know there’s a queue within the lads to assist with the shave, so I’m just hoping that will happen, that we can raise some funds and rest assured, and that then, the beard can return for next season!”

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