Stefan Liebenberg calls time on top level career at the likes of Cambridge Rugby Club, Old Albanian and Blackheath
An away day in Oxfordshire signalled a star in the making for Cambridge Rugby Club in 2007.
Stefan Liebenberg was only 23, but arrived on the National League scene with two tries in a win over Henley, who had only narrowly missed out on promotion to the Championship the previous season.
It was not the South African’s first steps on the British rugby arena, he had already won promotion with Bury St Edmunds the previous year, but it was the beginning of a career in the national pyramid system that was to also take in Old Albanian, Bedford Blues, Ampthill and Blackheath.
Thirteen years later, Liebenberg has made the decision to ‘retire’.
Having made more than 300 appearances in the National Leagues, scoring 75 tries in the process, he has signalled the end of his
“My body is giving in to play at that higher standard, I’ve also got a young family that needs me at home more, and my business needs me to put more time into that – so it’s a combination of the three things really,” he says.
“I’m very fortunate to be able to do that, not many players can stop playing without being injured and so I do feel blessed in a sense that I’ve been able to do it on my terms.
“If I didn’t, I think mentally I would have struggled moving forward like I know other players have.
“You don’t want to keep playing and flogging a dead horse, not being good enough any more to play at the level you want to.”
Liebenberg had a unique style.
The scrum-half was always distinguishable on the pitch, with his trademark sniping around the fringes of the breakdown and pinpoint accuracy with the pass.
He was also a chippy and chirpy character who you always knew was on a pitch, and could more often than not instantly identify.
But it is interesting to get an understanding of how the game has changed in the National Leagues during the past 13 years.
“I was looking at some footage of when I joined the club in the first instance,” says Liebenberg.
“You think you were a good rugby player then, but you look at it and think ‘what were you up to?’.
“The game has changed in the sense of professionalism, so the players are bigger and stronger. I think the skill level is still fairly similar.
“It’s just changed tactically the way you attack a game. Back in the day, you just want to run things and create opportunities but now the tactical awareness of teams to play without the ball has become more prevalent in our leagues.
“You look at Richmond, they didn’t play with the ball in their own half and the same with Ampthill when I was there.
“Tactically, it’s changed quite a bit not having to always be in possession of the ball.
“I would say for the good because it makes you think more as it’s not just brute strength and having to run over people.
“You have to tactically outsmart the opposition.”
With 300-plus games, there were many to choose from as a favourite but the most memorable was when Brendan Burke got a last-minute try for Cambridge to beat Old Albanian, a victory that was pivotal in taking the National League 2S championship in 2016.
As for highlights, Liebenberg has a handful of stand-out moments.
One was captaining Cambridge to promotion and helping create a culture at the club, another was playing for South Africa Barbarians against Saracens and then winning the Bill Beaumont Cup Final with Hertfordshire against Lancashire at Twickenham in 2012.
Another particularly proud moment has been captaining the Steele-Bodger XV against Cambridge University each November, an accolade he earned four years in a row – an equal record.
“It was an honour first to have met Micky (Steele-Bodger) and to have then been a part of the journey and history behind that,” says Liebenberg.
“You only need to have gone to one of those games and be part of one of the dinners to actually realise what it is all about.
“My hero, Augustin Pichot, was captain as well of the Bodgers; Nick Farr-Jones (Australia’s World Cup-winning captain in 1991) was as well.”
When you think of the role of a scrum-half, there is no other position that has a greater involvement with both the forwards and backs.
They bridge the gap between the great divide and so, for that reason, it is only right to get Liebenberg to give an assessment of the best fly-half and No 8 in which he has played.
Top spot at No 10 is perhaps no surprise.
“Unfortunately, it is Shanners (former Cambridge and current Blackheath head coach James Shanahan)!,” says Liebenberg, of his good friend.
“I played more than 150 games with him at nine and 10 for both Cambridge and OAs. I’ve learned a lot from him, how to do things and how not to do things as well!
“He was an outstanding rugby player and is an outstanding coach now, so to have been part of the journey with him and seen how he has grown has been pretty special.
“Another 10 that I’ve rated and have played with before is Lawrence Rayner. I enjoyed playing with him at OAs and Ampthill.”
It was a harder pick at No 8, with an impressive list from which to choose from at all of the clubs that he has played.
“From a No 8 point of view, Dave Archer was pretty good, just someone that controlled the game and was quite a force to be reckoned with,” says Liebenberg, of a former Cambridge team-mate.
“Tom Burns, at Blackheath this year, is a very good rugby player. Tom Powell was pretty good, Paul Tupai was good at Bedford.
“Billy Johnson is one of the best rugby players I’ve played with. I was with him at Bedford when he was a youngster, and went back to OAs with him. He is a player that is highly underrated. He missed out playing for Bedford back in the day, and is now Ampthill’s captain and probably one of their star players.
“When I was 17, my high school year, Schalk Burger was my No 8 at school for a couple of games. He was next level at that time already, so between Schalk and Billy I think I’ve had some good protection there.”
But what next for Liebenberg?
After six years at Cambridge, it is perhaps no surprise that he hopes to return to Volac Park to play social rugby for the third team.
“Next is to give back to people that I feel would benefit from some of the advice I might give in a slight coaching capacity, and still play the social rugby side of things,” he says.
“Most importantly, I want to ensure that my boys have got the foundations of playing any sport, not necessarily rugby, and core skills to move forward, that will link to me helping them with the mini and youth coaching where they will be at Cambridge.”
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More by this authorMark Taylor