UNLIKELY HERO: Sergeal Petersen - the Bulls saint of chasing lost causes

rugby18 June 2024 05:52
By:Brenden Nel
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Sergeal Petersen © Gallo Images

The tag of unlikely hero has been bandied about for Vodacom Bulls winger Sergeal Petersen ever since his brace of tries to send his team into this weekend’s Vodacom United Rugby Championship final.

But in reality Petersen’s performance at Loftus Versfeld was a triumph of determination over adversity and a reminder that forgotten talent can offer so much more in the rugby game.

The anguish over the loss of Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie - both World Cup winners - was understandable, especially given their influence on the 80-try Bulls this season and when replacement winger Sebastian de Klerk also went down with a niggle before the semifinal, there was serious concern at the make-up of the back three in such a big game.

Also understandable, not the least because Leinster possess a Grand Slam-winning back three that forms part of probably the most experienced club line-up in history and the odds seemed to be stacked against the Bulls.

But Petersen, a forgotten hero in time, a player who burst onto the scene at 18, and now still only 29, would have been forgotten by many rugby fans simply because of the turnover speed of players in the game.


And when he received a yellow card for going for the intercept in the first half, a moment that cost him a yellow card and saw James Lowe put Leinster ahead shortly after that, it ticked off his coach Jake White.

Petersen was subject to the halftime hairdryer at full effect. It woke him up and he responded with two second half tries to remind everyone out there, he isn’t done.

“It was unfortunate what happened in the first half, I tried to go for the intercept - Jake told us to stick to the basics and I tried to go for the magic moment. We had a chat during the week about finals rugby and doing the basics right, so that's what I think ticked him off a bit when it happened. At halftime we had our chat and coming in the second half we tried to stick to the plan and what we had been doing the whole season,” Petersen said afterwards.

“It’s finals rugby, you don’t need four tries to win a game, just one point. I think I rectified what I did in the first half with what I did in the second half, so I’m very chuffed with my performance coming back from that yellow card.”

That moment to rectify it came early in the second half when the Bulls attack drifted left, found some space, but with it closing quickly, Harold Vorster grubbered the ball ahead, and Petersen, tracking behind, kept his sprint for the right moment to pounce and score.

“I was really hopeful he would kick the ball, because there was nobody on his outside or inside he could give the ball to. I chased the ball but luckily I was there. But just the shape of the play we ran, there were so many options. So I just tried to stay alive so that I could be an option at the end of it,” he explained.


But the real moment of glory was still to come. The game poised on a knife edge, Petersen went up for a high ball. A reminder that chasing lost causes brings miracles at times. And at first he looked as if he had knocked it on. And then, by some miracle, it stuck in his hand and when he looked up, he had one defender to beat and a swallow dive for glory over the tryline.

“I don’t know what happened there. I stuck my hand out and the ball stuck. In games like these, moments like this, you do things to try and make things happen for you. I’m just happy that it worked after a wonderful team performance,” Petersen smiled in explaining, but wanted rather to give credit to the two kickers in the side, Willie le Roux and Johan Goosen.

“Willie, was exceptional throughout the whole game, was dictating the game with his boot and even Goosen was very good. Our forwards had a massive game so for me to be on the end of that, it was just the end result of putting so much pressure on the opposition and then if you continue, sometimes things happen for you.

“Moments like these are why you play the game. I came into the squad knowing I have a specific role to play. Canan and Kurt-Lee are Springboks and it is obviously big shoes to fill when they are there, but they are not there. Any team with them in is a better team. I just know what my role is and I delivered. It is what it is.”


The fact that Petersen was preparing to play in the Currie Cup when the injury call-up came and knew his role as a back-up player rather than the front man makes the two tries all the more poignant in a season where White’s biggest positive has been backing the next guy in the squad.

But Petersen also admits that there were nerves going into the game, knowing the stakes that were there and the fact that he was replacing a World Cup winner. He simply tried his best after not having rugby for 14 weeks to keep himself fit, focused and ready for when the moment came.

“There is always a bit of nerves going into a game like this, because you know what role you have in the team. But missing out on that continuity, that game fitness that the team has built on, and trying to slot in, to fit into that puzzle is difficult.

“But we all have specific roles, I knew from the start , when I signed my contract with the Bulls. Canan and Kurt-Lee are the wings and whenever the team needs me I need to be ready.

“So I’ve been doing a lot of work outside of the Bulls environment to stay fit and mentally sharp. Last week was intense - it was my first game after 14 weeks and after 60 minutes I was blown. But that also helped me with keeping up with the pace of this week. I’m just happy we have another week to play rugby. The job is not done, we’ve got one more week and we need to finish it.

“For me, my spirituality is also very important. If I think this season and this game is just a testament to how faithful my God is. I’m just grateful to have this opportunity to play rugby and be here. God is good.”

Petersen has played against Lowe before, but took on the challenge of facing the Ireland test wing as a measure of his own game, rather than worrying too much about the opposition.

“He is a world class player - James Lowe is a world class player and to play against a world class player like that you have to back your abilities, and I think I will back my abilities against anyone. It isn’t bold to say that. I just had to focus on the basics and focus on what we had planned for the weekend. The coaches had gone above and beyond to ensure the plan was there and we were ready.

“I played against him when I was at the Kings, Stormers, Cheetahs, so it wasn’t unfamiliar territory but it was a good challenge for me to see where I am in playing against players of that calibre. I haven’t played a lot of rugby.”


His own meteoric rise was stunted by one Waratahs winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, who Petersen met on the field at Twickenham in 2016 when his career was at its heigh. Petersen would admit that he didn’t have his best game and the bulk of the Fijian put doubts into the minds of the selectors and he was never picked again.

But eight years later it is a reminder that he paved the way for so-called smaller wingers like Cheslin Kolbe and Arendse, and certainly still has a lot to offer.

After those setbacks, he was at the Cheetahs and Stormers and clawed his way back to top flight rugby through the back door, eventually signing at the Bulls as a back-up and leading a winding road back to the top.

He has taken the setbacks and continued playing, giving his all and not giving up, a lesson for so many younger players on the field.

“At the end of the day this is my job. I am a professional and have to do what I have to do to keep the dream alive. Life comes with its ups and downs and it is how you handle it, and how you act that matters. I try not to be too serious with myself, I try to be too light.

“I know my abilities, and situations happen but you have to keep on going and try and keep yourself motivated.”

And now that the final is here, Petersen, who is the only Bulls player to have won a URC title (with the Stormers) knows the next 80 minutes will be tough, but the key is to keep to the basics.

“You can’t change too much, what you’ve built on since the beginning of the campaign and there is a reason why we are where we are at the moment. Basics are going to be the most important for us, because you only need one point to win. That’s the most important thing for us, we need to stay focused and keep mistakes to a minimum and be clinical in what we do,” he says.

Petersen’s moment on Saturday brought so much joy to the Loftus faithful and couldn’t have happened to a better player.

But the glory is fleeting and means little if it isn’t backed up this week. Petersen knows that, and while he smiles at the moment, he knows the work isn’t done.

And this week it's back to the grindstone.