Where Are They Now?: Zane Kirchner
February 10, 2022 3:24 pm Site Editor
THEN: South African international Zane Kirchner played 87 times for Leinster Rugby over four seasons (2013-2017).
NOW: He lives in Blanco, on the Western Cape, with his wife Tasneem and daughter Amaris, concentrating on the launch of ‘The Bookz and Bootz Foundation’.
Zane Kirchner has never been much of a ‘talker’. Until now.
The ex-Leinster Rugby and Springbok player is a self-admitted “loner”, a man happier in his own space than anyone else’s.
When you delve into his background, this makes perfect sense. He is the exception, escaping the generational poverty and violence that has imprisoned thousands in his town.
“I come from nothing. I come from the ghetto,” he says, from his home in Blanco, at the foot of the Outeniqua mountains on the Western Cape.
“When you come from very little, you try to hold onto whatever it is you have as best you can.”
The psychological battle for territory is rooted in the three sections Zane grew up around, the Valley, the Pits and the Skeem, providing three natural rivals to fuel a gangster mentality, based around drugs, alcohol abuse and gender-based violence.
“It is just the mentality of our people, growing up over the years. They fight for a piece of land or a territory that was never even theirs.
“As a child, you deal with a lot of things that are tough on the eyes. You see a lot of bad things happen every day. This turns people towards that life, not because they are bad people, but because they cannot see any other alternative.”
It could so easily have been Zane’s life too were it not for a steely mentality and the escape route rugby provided for him.
“Sport was my way of getting out. It granted me a way of exploring life and making me a better man,” he stresses.
“I always had the feeling that I wanted to be different. But, there was no role model for me, so I had to do it by myself.
“At 16, training was my out. When others took booze and drugs, I went training. Even if I went out, I had to be running on the road by five or six the next morning.
“What I saw granted me more energy and drove me to overcome the life I was born into. My difference came through rugby.
“What rugby has done for me is something for which I will be forever grateful.”
In 2002, at 17, Zane was invited to play rugby for the Griquas on the Northern Cape by his coach Abrie Minnie where outworking more talented players became his mission.
It was the first time he had left his parents’ home. For months, Zane cried himself to sleep. It almost got too much to take.
One night, he made a call home only to be told: ‘There is nothing for you here. There is nothing to come back to.’
He resolved to pursue a better life. Work ethic has been his point of difference. It was the basis for five years of senior rugby at Griquas (2003-2007), for six years at the Blue Bulls (2008-2013) and, ultimately, for 31 Springbok caps.
“The harder I worked the further I could get away from Blanco in my head. You want to stay away from that environment.”
In 2013, Zane made another difficult decision, walking away from the Blue Bulls to join the Leinster blues.
“I needed something new, a new environment, a new challenge, a new stimulus,” he recalls.
“Back then, the European games weren’t as often televised in South Africa as they are now. Leinster was still a mystery to me.
“It was a big learning curve for me as a player and as a man. You come from a South African environment where it is all about ‘harder and more’ to Leinster where it is about, ‘less, smarter and how can we be better?’
“You are talking about systems-versus-individuals. When it comes to the environment, I started feeling a love for Leinster, how they develop their players, how they improve them.
“For example, a lot of the Leinster boys I saw beating the Bulls in the URC in September were in the Academy and sub-Academy when I was there.
“Everything Leo (Cullen) and Stuart (Lancaster) said would happen in meetings, it happened year-on-year. They had faith in the players they were building.
“The difference is in man-management and the ability to understand how to make each and every player feel important. Everyone there holds the pride of the badge to their chest. There is that brotherhood, a feeling of going the extra mile for each other.
“When Stuart came to Leinster, I enjoyed the language he spoke, the detail he brought, the clarity, how smart they are about everything they do.
“I have so much respect for those people and that environment. World-class. World-class.”
Now, his main goal in life is to take what he has learned from what he has seen and apply it back home.
“I have always had a dream to get back to and give back to the place I come from. I realised the best way to do this was by setting up a foundation ‘Bookz and Bootz’.
“I want to take my platform and use it to impact the communities around where I am, from a sports development perspective.
“I want them to understand the mental toughness you need to be an athlete and use that resilience in your daily life.
“When you see where I come from, the challenges are in your face on a daily basis. It is a 24/7 decision-making process that kids have to go through.
“While I was playing rugby, I held out great hope that progress had been made at home.
“At Leinster, I saw people with passion, who cared about other people, who wanted to make a difference.
“When I came home, I took a few months out, walking around all the clubs and schools in the area. We are so far behind in terms of what our kids need.
“I got to work in soup kitchens on a daily basis for most of the year post-April of 2020. Sadly, nothing has changed,” he says.
It inspired Zane to set up ‘The Bookz and Bootz Foundation’, using rugby to instil the discipline and life fundamentals to work towards a better life.
The aim is to attract some European support, to tap into the networks and the environments he has been exposed to.
“I want a multi-purpose recreational facility where everyone from 13-18 can come and take part in rugby,” he says.
“The plan is to build towards a squad of 100-150 athletes which will be known as The Bookz and Bootz All-Stars.”
“The hope is to grant them the exposure to knowledge I’ve been fortunate to experience. Hopefully, through that, their perspective on things will change.
The veteran Springbok returned home to a deprived area to bring about change, to give hope to the hopeless and a voice to those who have no platform to be heard.
The current process for securing a facility, which is more or less a field, is hugely frustrating.
“Around here many don’t want to understand the potential and influence of sport, especially rugby,” Zane states.
“To know and understand the potential this project holds, it sometimes makes you wonder why there are so many obstacles in place.
“I want to share the vision and dream that I have to give our kids, another way to look at the world, to open their eyes to other possibilities.
“Rugby will only teach them the ability to be resilient, from a mental perspective. If they can overcome those shuttle runs, tackles, training sessions, they can compete in life.
“It goes far beyond the four lines of competition. But, every single day you have to make a decision because you are surrounded by those four lines every day.
“When you come from an environment like this, it is a decision between doing good and bad, saying yes or no. It is a responsibility that most of our kids don’t understand.
“I want to serve and assist our current leaders. It won’t be easy. I know that. It wasn’t for me.
“Achieving what I did is not what I’m driving, even though anything is possible. But, allowing our future generations to dream is a privilege we can’t starve them from.
“The discipline and resilience taken from ‘Bookz and Bootz’ can be core values for a new life, to be paid forward for generations to come.
“The fear of change is a curse that will forever limit our growth. I want our kids to embrace change – for the better.”