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Harlequins centre Andre Esterhuizen to return to South Africa for family reasons

Andre Esterhuizen runs with the ball
Andre Esterhuizen has been a key part of Harlequins' recent success - Getty Images/David Rogers

Harlequins have confirmed the departure of Andre Esterhuizen at the end of the season, with the Springbok returning home to South Africa for family reasons.

Esterhuizen has been released from the final year of his contract with the club in what he described as a “difficult decision” in order to be closer to his family, and is widely expected to sign for the Sharks in South Africa.

Since joining the club in 2020 the powerful centre has become a core part of the side, starring in their 2020/21 Gallagher Premiership title win and scoring 24 tries in 82 appearances. He was also voted RPA Players’ Player of the Year in 2022 and was part of South Africa’s Rugby World Cup-winning squad in France last year.

Andre Esterhuizen celebrates with the Rugby World Cup
Esterhuizen celebrates with the Rugby World Cup - Getty Images/Adam Pretty

Addressing his departure from the club, Esterhuizen said: “I’m very grateful to Harlequins for providing me with the opportunity to return home to South Africa and be closer to my family. It’s been a difficult decision but I’m very thankful to the club for working through the process with me.

“I have loved my time at Quins, the club has played a huge role in my development and career achievements, and I have forged incredible memories and great teammates. I want to thank the fans for their fantastic support, playing in front of The Stoop every week is very special and I look forward to my final few months at the club. Once a Quin, always a Quin!”

Harlequins director of rugby Billy Millard added: “Andre has been an integral member of our squad for the past four years and will be hugely missed. We’re disappointed to lose a player of his calibre, but we understand and respect his decision and wish him well for his career back in South Africa. We have an important run of matches to conclude the season and look forward to Andre’s impact as we strive to achieve our objectives.”

Why Andre the Giant is one of Quins’ best ever

Andre Esterhuizen barges through Racing 92's Gael Fickou
Esterhuizen has been a colossus for Quins - AFP/Miguel Medina

The following is not said lightly, given the quality of centres and players from overseas Harlequins have been lucky to have over the years, but when Esterhuizen departs at the end of the season to return to South Africa he will do so as one of the best midfielders to wear the famous quarters, and also one of the best bits of recruitment.

While Esterhuizen arrived back in 2020 to little external fanfare, having just missed out on South Africa’s Rugby World Cup squad, the club’s head of rugby at the time, Paul Gustard, was both effusive and prescient, noting that Esterhuizen had “the ability to change any game through his raw power and strength”.

Even so, surely neither player nor club could have envisaged Esterhuizen going on to become such a barnstorming success, so effective in what has been a problem position for England over the past decade that background checks were being carried out by journalists to see if there was even a hint of a possibility that he could end up playing in white at ‘The Big Stoop’ over the road. He laughed when asked by Telegraph Sport about this idea two years ago. You cannot blame anyone for trying.

When it comes to great Harlequins centres, Esterhuizen is in elite company, going back to WPC Davies in the 1950s and followed by the best of the lot in Will Carling, with Will Greenwood a close second, not forgetting Jordan Turner-Hall and recently Joe Marchant. In a current side set on entertaining and marshalled brilliantly in recent seasons by Danny Care and Marcus Smith, Esterhuizen was the necessary foil, the punch through the middle Harlequins needed to disrupt defences and create space for others.

Even the best defensive plans have no answer for someone as quick and powerful as Esterhuizen hitting short passes from Care of Smith hard and at pace. Two recent tries for Harlequins in Europe come to mind, against Racing 92 in Paris (watch video below) and at home against Toulouse, where Esterhuizen trampled a tackler and brushed through with such ease it was as though the defence had waved him through. The two defenders were Gael Fickou and Thomas Ramos, hardly bad tacklers.

Not that Esterhuizen is a mere basher. There has always been subtle footwork and passing to his game, making him a dream for any backs outside him. He was so reliable that when his balance betrayed him following a tap tackle while breaking clear to potentially win a game for Harlequins at the death against Bristol around 18 months ago, no one could believe it.

His return is a coup for the Sharks in South Africa, who have made plenty of noise and stacked their squad with returning Springboks but are yet to actually win anything (and currently sit bottom of the United Rugby Championship). As for Harlequins, that superb spine in the backline of Care, Smith, Esterhuizen and Marchant loses another key component.

He has been an immense signing, the envy of other clubs across the Premiership and the type of centre England desperately hoped for in recent times. In that famous title triumph against Exeter over the road from The Stoop three years ago, of course Esterhuizen scored but his defensive work, pouncing for an early turnover, was also appreciated. As is clear from Harlequins opting to release Esterhuizen a year early from his contract, they could hardly have asked for anything more from Andre the Giant.

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