Chris van Zyl, WP Rugby captain, on unlocking talent

Chris van Zyl, WP Rugby captain, has proven he is a pro at balancing both the numbers and the line-outs.

At six foot six, Chris van Zyl has presence. His height gives the professional rugby player an advantage in the lineouts. But van Zyl is not your average rugby player. A qualified chartered accountant [CA(SA)] who also runs his own accounting practice, van Zyl has proven that he is a pro at balancing both the numbers and the line-outs. Van Zyl wasn’t a stand out rugby player in his school days. “I was quite small,” he says. “My physical capabilities were never my greatest attribute at school. I never played beyond the third team.” Today, that picture is very different. So what changed? Chris shares why he’s so invested in ensuring that young people consider their career choices carefully.                

“After completing matric, my idea was to study at Stellies (Stellenbosch University) to become a CA(SA), and to have a good time. I didn’t have a goal beyond that, yet. But as I played more rugby my physique got stronger and I moved up the ranks. I played for every team until I reached the varsity team!” he says. 

Going pro      
Having played in the 2011 Varsity Cup competition, Chris decided to pursue the professional rugby route in 2012 while doing his Bachelor of Accounting Honours. “My brother, Anton had more or less followed the same path,” he reflects. “So, I believed it was possible to study and play at that level at the same time.” 

Later that year, Chris relocated to Johannesburg to play club rugby for Pirates, where he was made club captain. At this point, he also began his CA(SA) training contract at Deloitte in Johannesburg.  “Deloitte was very supportive,” he says. “They even promoted a lifestyle campaign with the tagline ‘individuals outside the work environment, promoting employees of Deloitte to have passions outside of the workplace’. I was fortunate to have a mentor who was aligned with my goals.”

“It’s important to have a mentor at your training office. Someone who shares your passion and who understands what drives you.”

As if the three-year CA(SA) training contract is not challenging enough, Chris recalls that waking up before dawn on cold, wintry mornings to fit in a gym training session before going to work wasn’t fun, but it was what he had signed up for. Achieving his twin goals of playing professional rugby and becoming a CA(SA) meant burning the midnight oil and little or no social life.

“There were speedbumps along the way,” he recalls. “At times I wondered how I’d manage to get through all the work commitments and my rugby schedule. But at that point, what kept me moving forward towards my goals was the enjoyment that came with working hard, the dedication that goes with playing at semi-professional level, and the small rewards along the way.” 

 

Chris soon started making significant progress in his sports career. He joined the Golden Lions senior side in 2013 and made his first-class debut in the 2013 Vodacom Cup competition. While the team lost narrowly to the Falcons in a 22–27 defeat, Chris was named captain of the side. That same year, he made his Currie Cup debut in the 2013 Currie Cup Premier Division match against the Sharks in Durban.

Fast-forward to today, and Chris is now a Western Province Currie Cup player and captain. But as much as he loves rugby, he urges professional rugby players as well as young people pursuing a career as a professional sports player to plan for another career after sports, as these careers – especially for rugby players – are generally relatively short lived.

“I wish more professional players would show more foresight for life after rugby. It’s too late to think about it after rugby. You should be taking active steps to plan for it while you’re playing."

Staying the course
It was with this view in mind that becoming a CA(SA) was as important a goal to Chris as becoming a professional sportsman. In his case, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he’d join the profession. After all, his two older brothers are CAs(SA). “The seed was sown around the dinner table,” he says. “My parents suggested becoming a CA(SA) as it complemented my skills set.”
       
Chris completed his final year of traineeship at Deloitte in Cape Town after taking a few years break to concentrate on his fledgling rugby career. He qualified as a CA(SA) in March 2016. In the same year, he established Walworth Consultants, a start up in Cape Town that specialises in the provision of bookkeeping and accounting services.

Today, he promotes the profession in his own way. Recently, the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) invited Chris to be a lead speaker at their first ‘CA Nights’ event in Cape Town, where he inspired CA(SA) trainees to stay the course and qualify. “I was honoured by SAICA’s invitation and I think it’s important to share my story of becoming a CA(SA). Trainees experience self-doubt during traineeship. The work schedule is so jam-packed that the stress of managing it all can get to you,” he told the rapt crowd.
   
Chris urges new CAs(SA) to take responsibility for the work assigned to them. “Be accountable for your deliverables – you’ll build a reputation as someone who gets the job done,” he says. And when the going gets tough, he recommends a healthy dose of determination. “Many things in my life didn’t come easy. It drove me to work harder to achieve my goals.”