By Mark Janzen
At the opener of the Pacific Nations Cup in Glendale, Colorado, Pieter de Haas was hard to miss.
The father of USA scrumhalf Ruben de Haas looked every bit American…and then some.
Surrounded by family unabashedly adorned in Red, White, and Blue, the elder de Haas donned a baseball jersey with U.S.A. extending across the chest, stars on his right shoulder, stripes on this left shoulder, and the Statue of Liberty reaching up from the bottom hem.
Inside Infinity Park, which resides within “RugbyTown USA,” the family witnessed the younger de Haas once again prove his value within the Eagles setup, entering the game in the 58th minute against Canada, helping run a dominant USA attack and scoring himself after a nifty intercept.
On the night, Americana took centre stage and the South African Pieter, of the South African family who hails from Hot Springs Village, Arkansas, and the South African born Ruben, 20, might as well have been the ringleaders.
Three year ago, in an article written in The Sentinel-Record – “Hot Springs, Arkansas source for news, entertainment, weather, classifieds, jobs, autos, real estate, and Oaklawn racing information” – Pieter made a declaration.
“Ruben will never play for South Africa. (He’s) proudly American.”
In a more recent conversation, Ruben himself solidified the suggestion.
“USA is my home for sure.”
That was that. For the Eagles, it’s a good thing.
The de Haas family moved to Arkansas from George, Western Cape, South Africa when Ruben was 10 years old. His grandmother had married an Arkansans man and moved stateside. Soon after, Pieter and his family followed.
Ruben went from catching sand sharks in the deep seas off the coast of South Africa (which he did once), and hunting springboks, to fishing for bass and scoping white-tailed deer.
He, along with dad Pieter, also went from rugby to the gridiron.
“Oh yeah, he loves football,” Ruben says with a laugh.
Ruben got in on Friday Night Lights himself, playing football throughout his time at Jessieville High School. Naturally, the team implemented a play designed to give Ruben a chance to execute a defence-flummoxing long-distance lateral. It worked well and the team even scored a touchdown on the play.
“It was awesome,” Ruben said. “I love football (too).”
Yet, despite the statue-emblazoned baseball jersey, Pieter’s unencumbered passion for both Sunday Night and Monday Night Football and Ruben’s football-playing exploits, rugby remained at the core of the de Haas family.
Both Pieter and Ruben’s grandfather, Gerard de Haas, had played with the Free State Rugby Union back in South Africa and Ruben’s bloodlines soon proved fruitful. After a few years in Arkansas, Pieter and Ruben helped launch Arkansas’s only high school rugby team – the Little Rock Junior Stormers – building a junior side within the Little Rock Rugby Club.
In time, the South African kid who embraced the American way convinced his football-playing brethren to try his sport. The subsequent newspaper clippings that talked about de Haas and his Junior Stormers typically included a detailed explanation of the sport. But, with a young superstar in their midst, The Sentinel-Record became a source for rugby news as well.
Now, barely beyond his teenaged years, de Haas has started to make a name for himself both near, within USA Rugby, and far, back in South Africa. He was a High School All-American in 2015, captaining the team, and then spent two summers with USA’s U20 side, in 2016 and 2017. His success in his adopted country caught the eye of Free State and following his second stint with the U20 team, he signed an academy contract with the Cheetahs.
The following year, in 2018, he made his Eagles debut on Feb. 17 against Chile in the Americas Rugby Championship and then, having become a regular with USA Rugby, he signed a senior deal with Free State. While he travelled with the Pro14 side in the opening two weeks of the 2018-19 season to play Munster and Ospreys, de Haas spent the majority of his playing time competing within the Rugby Challenge – a secondary domestic competition in South Africa. Yet, the experience remained invaluable.
“Last year was a great learning opportunity and I grew a lot in an environment where I was training with guys who play with the Springboks,” de Haas says, reflecting on the chance to train alongside the Pro14-playing Cheetahs. “Being able to compete with players of that quality just lifts my game.”
He returned to the USA a man on a mission. As a South African kid who used to tossed the ball around barefooted, he always imagined himself in the World Cup one day. He has a chance to do just that with the Eagles.
“That’s always your dream growing up.”
Now, less than two months away from the Rugby World Cup in Japan, de Haas on the cusp of realizing his dream.
“Reuben is a player who has incredible potential,” said USA coach Gary Gold. “He’s the whole package as a scrumhalf. He’s big and strong and he has a beautiful pass and a great kicking game. He’s still young at the moment and obviously the experience he’s getting with the Cheetahs and hopefully with us at the international level will benefit him. He has massive potential and someone who I think is going to go very far.”
He’s already proving his worth in big moments in big games.
On an early-March evening in Seattle this past spring, de Haas wore the hero’s cape. With USA trailing by two points, 25-23, in the final moments, de Haas found space from five metres out and, with a delirious American crowd yearning for a last-gasp try, he dove across the line in emphatic fashion.
“We were dominating in the scrum and we got advantage,” de Haas recalled. “I wanted to go blind earlier, but the ball wouldn’t come back. I was hesitating to go blind but I went anyways and then the hole opened. It was a surreal moment. To score the winning try for your country – it’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Four months later, the Eagles and Canadians saw each other in Glendale.
With Stars and Stripes abound, de Haas stuck it to Canada again, snapping up a wayward second-half Canadian pass and running the ball in untouched from 30 metres out. At that point, the win was already written in ink, but the try was provided the exclamation point.
Most pundits would suggest he’s on course to be part of USA’s setup at the World Cup, with veteran scrumhalf Shaun Davies as the American’s go-to and de Haas and Nate Augsburger competing to come off the bench.
In reality, it seems that the future Gold mentioned isn’t far off at all. There could be moments or more in the PNC and there could be moments or more at the World Cup.
“I just have to do my best and work hard every day,” de Haas said. “Everyone is pushing to the World Cup and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
With his Eagles ambitions so clearly articulated – on more than a few occasions – the stage is set.
Ruben will be hard to miss.