Rugby’s ultimate nomad who has played for more teams than anyone in English history

Michael van Vuuren interview: Rugby’s ultimate nomad and his search of ‘home’
Michael van Vuuren: ‘I have been through the best and worst times of my life in England’ - Mark Pinder

In Newcastle Falcons’ Tap & Tackle bar, Michael van Vuuren is reflecting on life as rugby’s ultimate journeyman. The friendships he has made and different parts of the world he has visited as well as the crippling stress and lack of security caused by his nomadic career.

According to statistician Stuart Farmer, hooker Van Vuuren holds the record for playing for the most clubs in the top two divisions of English rugby (10) – one ahead of Tom Arscott. Add in his clubs in South Africa and an early spell at Stade Francais and his total reaches 14, which he can list sequentially: Free State Cheetahs, Stade Francais, Eastern Province Kings, Leicester Tigers, Bath, London Scottish, London Irish, Northampton Saints, Bedford Blues, Ampthill, Ealing Trailfinders, Wasps, Lions, and Newcastle Falcons.

His longest spell at a single club was his three seasons at Bath, where the 32-year-old also made his most appearances (21), while Van Vuuren has loved his time at plenty of other clubs, especially Northampton and Wasps. Yet partly due to some astonishing bad luck – two clubs went into liquidation and twice he was signed by coaches who were sacked before he arrived – has never been anywhere long enough to put down roots. “It is hard for me to say where feels most like home because in a sense I have always been searching for a home and never found it,” Van Vuuren said. “You have to be somewhere long enough to settle down.

“I was having a conversation with my best friend last night about when do you know to stop chasing? When is it not worth it anymore? I think I have just been really bad at knowing when to quit or when to stop. I have always tried to stay in the fight. We all have dreams. Even if we don’t get there, those dreams take a long time to fade.”

Growing up in the Eastern Cape, Van Vuuren’s dream was to represent the Springboks. He played in the same team at Grey High School as Siya Kolisi. Yet if the double World Cup winning captain was destined for greater things – “even then he was a man amongst boys” – Van Vuuren was a late developer who was not selected for the famous, star-making Craven Week. “No one gave me a chance in hell of making it,” he says.

Yet Van Vuuren became the youngest hooker to play in the Currie Cup and featured alongside Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth for South Africa Under-20s in the 2011 Junior World Championship. In what was the first of a series of sliding doors moments, Van Vuuren signed for Stade Francais in 2012. His plan was to play there for a couple of seasons before returning to South Africa to push for higher honours. It did not turn out that way.

“Michael Cheika actually signed me but before I got there he got sacked,” Van Vuuren said. “Paris is not a forgiving city for a young kid, it was sink or swim.” He returned to South Africa to join the Kings, his hometown team, who he says “looked like they were building something special” only for the club to go into liquidation in 2015.

Michael van Vuuren interview: Rugby’s ultimate nomad and his search of ‘home’
Michael van Vuuren will be out of contract next year - Telegraph/Mark Pinder

Soon after he joined Leicester on a two-week trial which was extended to a month and then to the end of the season. Trials would become a frequent occurrence. “It is tough to be in a place where you don’t have security,” Van Vuuren said. “It just forces you to always put your best foot forward every single day which can be quite exhausting at times but it is just the way it is.”

Mike Ford signed Van Vuuren at Bath only to be fired before he arrived. Similarly at Ealing after a spell at Northampton, Alex Codling moved on the season after he arrived. “I don’t know why the guys who signed me kept getting sacked,” Van Vuuren said. “Sometimes I have been at clubs where players have just been better than me. That’s something you just have to accept. Then there have been times where I just have not had the luck or I have got injured at the wrong time.”

The hardest point came after Van Vuuren joined Wasps, whom he again joined on a trial basis before eventually getting a contract and the promise of a degree of security. “I will always be indebted to Joe Launchbury, who fought to get me a contract extension and to Lee Blackett who gave it to me,” Van Vuuren said. That security disappeared when Wasps went into administration last year.

Unemployed and with no openings in the European market, Van Vuuren reluctantly returned to South Africa. “It was never part of my plan to go back to South Africa,” Van Vuuren said. “I had made the UK my home and I was going through the citizenship process and becoming a British citizen which was something I really focused on. I just saw the rest of my life being in England. I have been through the best and worst times of my life in England and I just consider myself English.

“I had been here for seven years so going back to South Africa was very much a culture shock for me. It can be hard to get your head around things like load shedding where they cut the electricity off for 12 hours a day or not having water for three days.”

It was particularly tough for his partner, Lydia, an aspiring actress who he met in Bath and has followed him ever since. “Moving around has been tough, but she’s resilient,” Van Vuuren said. “She’s been amazing in the way she has been able to adapt to things.

“You can have your low points. You need good support around you. I am a Christian and I have my faith and even at times it can be difficult to hold on to that. I have been lucky that I have always had my family there to support me and a tight group of friends. I am also trying to do it for myself and for the people who were there for you in the beginning. You don’t want to give up for those guys.”

‘I guess I am a romantic when it comes to a game’

Another unintended consequence of playing for the Lions was that Van Vuuren unknowingly lost his English Qualified Player status, which was not just a point of pride but a crucial selling point to Premiership clubs. Conor O’Shea, the Rugby Football Union’s executive director of performance rugby, and the Rugby Players’ Association have been assisting him to get his status restored. “It has been very stressful,” Van Vuuren said. “Hopefully common sense prevails.”

Fortunately, he was still able to sign for Newcastle, now coached by Codling, where he has been enthused by the city and the potential of a young squad. “There are a lot of young players who could definitely go on to play for England,” Van Vuuren said. “It is about how you nurture them and develop them. It takes time to shift a mindset and change a culture that has been used to losing. It does not happen overnight, but Codders is the right man to do it.”

His contract at Kingston Park runs until the end of the season when yet more uncertainty awaits. Van Vuuren repeatedly states that he does not want any sympathy. Nor does he reject the journeyman tag. Indeed he is in the process of setting up a business called Journeyman with Jeff Williams, the former Bath and Sevens player, to provide advice to aspiring players and their parents and children. Despite everything, he just about retains his passion for the sport.

“I suppose it is love-hate,” Van Vuuren said. “I guess I am a romantic when it comes to a game, but it is also a business and that’s where the hatred comes in.”