“I always try to be the hardest worker in the room… When things go badly you just have to persist and keep going.”
Remarkably, Ludik is now one of the longest-serving members of the current set-up. He is also one of the squad’s most consistent performers and is an unflappable presence in Ulster’s back-line.
Ludik has had a remarkable journey in his career. Here, he chats to Ulster Rugby Lad about his time on the fringes of the Springboks squad, playing against the British Lions, injury woes, Currie Cup success, moving to France and a call from a former team-mate plying his trade in Belfast that would change his life.
Ludik can now rightfully call himself an Ulsterman and has been embraced by the community here, not just for his rugby playing exploits, but for his love of the club and the people of Ulster.
Here, in typically humble fashion, he discusses his passion for the game, his motivations and his commitment to developing the next generation of rugby players in Ireland.
Who/What made you passionate about rugby?
Where I grew up you are basically born and raised with a ball in your hand!
All my friends played rugby. It’s just one of those automatic things that you just get into – it’s hardly even a decision!
In South Africa it’s really a cultural thing. In Afrikaans schools, in particular, everybody supports rugby and follows it closely.
I started playing for my school when I was 6 or 7 years old and played right through school. When I was young, I didn’t even consider it could ever be a job. It was only later when I reached high school that I set my sights on one day being a professional rugby player.
Who was your biggest influence growing up?
My favourite player was Andre Joubert – he played for the Springboks and Sharks and was known in South Africa as ‘The Rolls-Royce of Fullbacks’. He was my absolute idol growing up.
My coaches at school also had a big influence on me. I was a bit bigger than some of the other guys my age and maybe they saw some potential. My coaches at school – Mr. Human in particular – took me under their wing a bit and tried to help me and give me advice.
How did you end up at Ulster?
I started my career playing Super Rugby with the Lions, then the Natal Sharks before moving to French club Agen in 2013.
I was contacted by Ruan Pienaar who was of course enjoying his rugby with Ulster at the time. We had been really good friends when I had played with him at the Sharks. He told me Ulster needed a full back.
Any time I saw Ruan when he came to visit, he would always sing Ulster’s praises and say how good a club it was. He absolutely adores the place and really sold it to me!
I think Ulster were looking at a few other options – the likes of Stuart Hogg – but they didn’t work out. Ruan said if I was available then it could be good option for me. I was still under contract with my club but the connection with Ruan at Ulster helped make the move happen. It’s a shame he had to move on because, as you know, he loves Belfast!
What are your career highlights?
Winning the Currie Cup in the 2012/2013 season was brilliant – definitely one of my favourite seasons for the Sharks. We played really good rugby, and this was one of my best seasons in terms of my performance. We also won it in 2010 which was great, but the 2012/13 season was special.
I was included in the Springboks training squad in 2008 which was also very special for me. It was unfortunate I never got a chance to play for them, but it gave me the opportunity to play at Ulster a bit longer so it’s not all bad!
At Ulster one of my highlights was beating Glasgow away two years ago. I had a pretty good game and it’s always great to get an away win. All the away wins in the Champions Cup – Leicester away, Harlequins away, Toulouse away. Winning away from home is always very special because it’s so tough to do against quality sides.
Is there a time when a failure or apparent failure has set you up for a later success?
When I injured my ACL, I had been in the Springboks squad. I had been in the emerging Springboks squad against the British Lions just before they played the tests. I was getting close to getting into the Springboks team at that point.
Obviously, I was very disappointed to get injured. You feel like the world’s against you but it teaches you a lot. In life, disappointments happen. You must dig deep and not get into a dark place. Things can come tumbling down very, very quickly and I think you learn that in rugby and in life.
As a rugby player, there can be extreme highs and extreme lows – bad things happen. It taught me that if things go well you must make the most of it and appreciate it but whenever things go badly you just have to persist and keep going.
When I was trying to come back from my ACL injury there were complication which put me back another few months – I ended up being out for 12 months in total. It was really frustrating and a very tough time in my life.
Then, when I came back from my injury, I didn’t play well for a period. My form really struggled. You just have to keep working hard to get through it. I was determined to get back to playing at the level I knew I was capable of. Over time, I managed to get my speed and power back up but it’s the confidence that was a struggle. I knew I had to work hard to get it back. I was putting in absolutely everything off the field to get back to where I needed to be.
It is a massive relief to get back to the level you were at before when returning from an injury. I think it was 2012 by the time I felt like I got back to the level I needed to be at. My injury was in 2009 and the two years that followed I really struggled with form.
The other issue is that when you’re injured the next generation is always at you heels, ready to take your spot. When I got injured it opened up the position for Pat Lambie to come in – a great player who went on to play for the Springboks. That’s the risk of what can happen when you’re out – someone comes in and makes the position their own.
It was so rewarding, after working so hard to get back and win trophies. Whenever hard work pays off there is no better feeling!
When you think of the word ‘successful’ who is the first person who comes to mind?
Bryan Habana springs to mind. He was at the top of his game and then he got injured. He got through it and came back to play at the highest level. He’s a Springbok great.
The other one would be my business partner, Tommy Bowe. One of the toughest things is the transition from rugby into normal life. A lot of guys really struggle. Tommy was a phenomenal player but outside of rugby he also has this incredible drive. He has really high aspirations for the various projects he’s involved in. He has learnt a lot from rugby, but he definitely has a drive outside of that to improve, create things and take on exciting ventures.
What obsessions do you explore in your free time?
Well one big thing would be Rugby Rising – a project Tommy and I are involved in.
The idea for Rugby Rising started in South Africa. Teams would go on away trips at Easter for a week and play against different teams. It was great fun and great for team bonding – I have really fond memories of these festivals.
We were aware that school teams go on tours around the UK and go to rugby festivals in England, but we thought ‘why not have our own All-Ireland festival?’. I chatted about it with Tommy and he loved the idea, so we came up with the concept for Rugby Rising.
It’s a festival over the course of 3 days. The teams play two games on Friday and one on Sunday. Saturday is an education day and the players have an opportunity to learn from the best professionals in the fields of S&C, nutrition, mental health, sports management and statistics as well as hearing from current and past players. We want to give out really good information to the next generation.
Overall though, it’s about fun. School rugby can be so serious, but we want players to enjoy the rugby, have a great trip and enjoy each-other’s company. We are also aiming to raise the profile for school’s rugby in Ireland through our website and social media platforms, giving players and fans an online hub of information about youth rugby.
We had our first festival in 2018 and it went well. We are really looking forward to the next one coming up in August 2019.
You mentioned providing information to young players about mental health. What role does mental health play in rugby? Is there more that could be done to help look after players?
Rugby Players Ireland have done a lot of good work in this regard. Tackle your Feelings is really good initiative. Men in general don’t really speak about their feelings, especially rugby players who think they are meant to be tough – mentally and physically. That’s why people don’t talk.
There’s a lot of pressure on rugby players in terms of playing but also the pressure of getting picked, getting your next contract and the question of what to do with your life after rugby. There are so many factors affecting players. On top of this, like everyone else, you have to look after your family and spend time with them.
I’ve been playing for 12 years and I turn 33 next year. Stepping away from rugby you don’t have any real experience apart from being a rugby player. So, although I have a degree, you walk away from rugby and you pretty much start a new career from scratch. It’s not easy. There is a lot of pressure to sort something out post-rugby. A lot of players struggle with that transition.
I think there’s more that could be done on that side of things. Both in terms of raising awareness that it’s good to talk about your problems and challenges but also practical things to help players with that transition post-rugby.
What role does your faith play in your rugby career?
It plays a big part in my life. I lean on my faith in God quite a bit when times are tough. I try and put everything – all my worries and concerns – into God’s hands. I know that if I do my best, He’ll take care of the rest. Having faith in God is a continuous journey and it is an important thing to me.
In South Africa the majority of players are Christian. It’s very different over here – not everyone sees themselves as a Christian. In some ways it is easier to be a believer in South Africa because it’s the norm. In South Africa, everyone prays together before a game and here that doesn’t happen – it’s a huge difference.
Since moving to Ulster, I’ve had some very good discussions with people about religion. There’s a historical context here which obviously has an impact on how people perceive religion. However, faith goes a lot deeper than religion – it’s not just about saying you believe something, it’s a part of your life.
It can be tough, and my faith has been tested a lot. In this environment some people lose their faith. But for me, it has just got stronger.
How do you get in the right ‘head-space’ before a game?
I mentally prepare about a day before a game. I start to visualize the game and think positively.
For a lot of my career I was scared to make mistakes. Now I just focus on how I do things well, what my role in the team is and how I can implement that in the game. I just try and get into a very positive mindset – like a positive bubble around me.
In terms of specific rituals before a game I don’t really have any. I just try not to eat too much – just as many carbs as possible without going overboard so I’m completely full! Apart from that I take it easy, watch Netflix and just try and chill out.
What advice would you give your 17-year-old self?
When I was in university I played alongside some very talented players – often more talented than me! Some of these guys could have gone on to play professional rugby but they got distracted or didn’t have the right attitude.
There can be a lot of distractions in university – it can be a very fragile time. You have your freedom and you can go to parties, start drinking and so on. Some people can get away with having natural talent but, more often than not, it is the guy who works the hardest who will go on to succeed in their career.
I would just go back to tell myself to keep doing what I was doing because it was going to be worth it. I remember when I was playing under 19s, we went to the gym at 6.30am and a lot of guys would make excuses and say they’ve got class when they didn’t – anything to get a lie-in. They just wanted to sleep later and put off the gym until tomorrow. I always went to the gym and it was all worth it – all the sacrifice. Even small sacrifices like that every day – to not sleep late but instead go to the gym every day. Putting in the hard yards is always worth it. There are rewards that come your way if you persist at that.
As I say, there are far more talented guys out there, but I always try to be the hardest worker in the room. A lot of guys look like they train hard on social media but, at the end of the day, it’s the work you do and the decisions you make your own time, when people don’t see you – that’s what counts. It’s these type of small things – daily decisions and sacrifices – that make a huge difference in the end.
The guy that goes out and does the work – that’s the guy that is going to be successful. A lot of people can talk a good game but going out and actually doing it is a different story.
What is your favourite documentary or movie?
I love sport documentaries. The ‘All or Nothing’ series with the All Blacks and Manchester City, Dallas Cowboys and the Cardinals. I really enjoy those type of things.
I’m currently watching ‘Cricket Fever: Mumbai Indians’. When there is a new sports documentary out, I try and immediately watch them. Sunderland ‘Til I Die is also a really interesting docu-series.
Is there anything you have changed your mind about in the past few years and Why?
I have been really focused on stuff outside of rugby. Trying to get a couple of things up and running. The last couple of years I have been not only focusing on what is happening on the field but also off it. I like challenging myself in that way.
It’s a new world – meeting with executives in board rooms, negotiating and trying to sell something and the risk of hearing ‘no’. But I’ve enjoyed putting myself out there and taking risks – it’s one thing taking risks on the field, but this new context is different and it’s really exciting and enjoyable.
I’ve got Rugby Rising on the go. I also have a South African sausage range called ‘Hellbent’ which we started in NI so I’m trying to get that out there and start selling. The idea is that it’s a high-quality sausage – pure beef with lamb casing with some South African spices. We’re passionate about the quality and producing a healthy, delicious sausage. We had a launch of the range at the Kingspan last season.
Apart from that and my wife and I do some property investment. We love renovating property and doing it up and selling it on or renting it out. We’re busy with our second property now. So yeah, I’m keeping busy!
It’s probably fair to say Ulster exceeded expectations this season. Some great academy players have come through and the new signings will strengthen the squad. What are your expectations for next season?
Yeah, we’re all really positive after this season. The players coming in are outstanding. I think we will have a better team for sure. The academy players have been excellent, and the new signings will give us even more depth.
In sport there is a tendency to talk always talk about ‘next season’ but we shouldn’t put off doing well. Of course, there has been talk of rebuilding, but I feel like we have made amazing progress last season.
We have some awesome players and there is a lot of optimism and excitement in the squad for the season ahead.