This season will be Ettienne van As’ last as forwards coach of FNB Wits, bringing an end to a partnership with his brother Hugo that spans several decades.
Hugo and Ettienne were born a year apart and are as close-knit as brothers come. They are married to sisters, have children similar in age, run a business together, and have been coaching together for as long as they can remember.
Their coaching journey at FNB Wits began in 2015 – with Hugo as head coach and Ettienne as forwards coach – when the university was still in the FNB Varsity Shield. They reached the final of the tournament in 2015 and then won it in 2016 to earn promotion to the FNB Varsity Cup.
Ettienne says it was an emotional moment when FNB Wits beat FNB UWC 39-2 in the 2016 FNB Varsity Shield final.
“I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much next to the field. It was very special and something I’ll never forget."
The brothers enjoyed coaching in the FNB Varsity Shield because they got to visit parts of the country, like Alice (Fort Hare), where they would not normally play.
“We have a good management team, who all bought into the dream, and a very young group of players who we used to build the foundation for the FNB Varsity Cup," Hugo recalls. “The semi-finals and finals in the FNB Varsity Shield were tough but a good stepping stone to the FNB Varsity Cup.”
In their first season in the top tier, in 2017, FNB Wits finished fifth, before qualifying for the semi-finals the following year.
The Van As' coaching philosophy has always been to add value. They share the drive to put FNB Wits on the map as a sports university and not just an academic institution. Gone are the days when FNB Wits were a walkover, and while they may not be winning as much as they want to, they have made good progress.
The brothers have always wanted to leave the jersey in a better place than when they found it, and there's no doubt they have achieved that over the past six years.
Hugo says their coaching dynamic just works.
“I think we understand each other. We don’t differ a lot but there’s a lot of respect. I see Ettienne as a server, who cares about the team. He’s living the dream and that adds value to any environment. We think alike and we are alike as individuals, so it’s been awesome.”
Being in a bio-bubble hasn’t been much of an adjustment for the brothers, who live in the same area in Johannesburg and are sharing a room at the Future Africa campus.
“I think they placed us together because Ettienne’s a snorer, so nobody wants to room with him," jokes Hugo.
When asked what he’ll miss the most about coaching with FNB Wits, Ettienne says: “The things you pick up when working with players. The guys we worked with years ago still communicate with us. For Hugo and myself, it’s not just about what happens on the field, it’s the investment in the players off the field, and they invest in us too.”
Hugo says he’ll miss the way Ettienne serves the team the most.
“Because of his personality, he might not always agree with me, but because he cares, he’ll submit to what we decide. He made an enormous contribution to get Wits rugby to where it is today.
"I’ll also miss the companionship; the fact that I can really open my heart to him, on the field and off the field; and the fact that we share the same challenges at home and in the corporate world,” Hugo adds.
So what’s next for Ettienne?
“I think it’s time for something else," he says. 'I don’t want to be involved in coaching. Not because it hasn’t been brilliant – it has – I just think it's time to stop.”
Photo: Dominic Barnardt/Varsity Cup