Recently-retired ace has no regrets as he now calls Northern Ireland home
With the British and Irish Lions in town only once every 12 years, to play against rugby’s most storied visitors is viewed as a once in a lifetime experience.
For Louis Ludik, it was a life-altering one.
The recently-retired Ulster favourite was just 22-years-old back in 2009, lining out in the same Lions versus Lions fixture that awaits Warren Gatland’s men this evening.
Tipped for Springbok honours in the near future, the high-profile contest was a chance for Ludik to catch the eye once more, to show that he was ready for the best that Britain and Ireland had to offer.
Eagerly anticipated for months in advance, the game was only six minutes old when disaster struck and the full-back was stretchered from the field after badly damaging a knee in a collision with David Wallace.
“The game was such a big deal, which it obviously deserved to be, and I just remember all the hype around it,” he says.
“A World Cup is massive but it’s every four years. The Lions, we only get them once every 12 years and it’s a massive opportunity for any player.
“There were all these ex-players who had played for the Guateng Lions against the Lions on past tours brought in to give us our jerseys and stuff.
"It was really special and you just felt really fortunate to be having that experience.
“I had actually been quite disappointed that I didn’t make the full squad to play the Lions. The players that were there were obviously legends but I’d been playing good rugby that year and training really well.
"My coaches thought I’d be in with a real chance but I guess maybe in the end they just thought I was too young or too inexperienced maybe for the Lions.
"I was actually due to play for the Emerging Boks in the midweek game against the Lions too… then the injury.”
Out for a year, and believing it took two more seasons to get back to the level he’d been at prior to the injury, it was a day that “derailed” his career but set him on a new path.
“At the time, when the doctors told me the news about how serious it was, I thought it was bad but you’re young, you’re naive, you think you’ll get back,” he says.
“It’s only looking back on it now that I can see the huge impact that it had on my career.
“But I don’t regret any of it. If I never got injured, if I played for the Boks, I probably wouldn’t have been able to come to Ulster or certainly stay here for as long, and I’m so grateful for that experience.
”Everything happens for a reason, even if you can’t see it at the time.”
It’s with similar serenity that Ludik reflects upon the end of his playing days this past season, a concussion sustained against Cardiff Blues back in November ultimately bringing down the curtain on a seven-year stay at Kingspan Stadium.
“Playing at home, a big knockout game, a capacity crowd, that’s everyone’s ideal but not everyone gets the fairytale ending,” he says.
“That’s what I said to the guys on my last day, you never know which game is your last. I certainly didn’t go into that game thinking it would be the last one that I’d have.
"When you play, or do anything, you never know when that’s going to end so you have to make the most of everything.”
Thankfully, the lingering effects of his injury are minimal but there was still no option but to walk away from the sport he’s loved since childhood.
“I was pretty much okay, Ulster took real care of me and their return to play protocols are so strict that it was weeks before I was even back in training,” he reveals.
“Whenever I got back into it I felt really good and was down to play in a game. But when we had a contact session in training, the headaches came back.
"When you have a concussion, or even just symptoms, there’s no chances taken so that was me out again.
“Taking contact in training, that was the thing. In general, in my lifestyle, everything was fine but taking hits brought them back. It wasn’t as if I was struggling daily or anything like that that you’d hear about.
“But we decided in March that that was it. I’ve been playing rugby since I was six-years-old, sometimes I kamikazed into tackles and didn’t have much respect for my body because I loved that part of the game.
"Almost 30 years of getting hit, making hits, I almost feel like that’s a pretty good run if it’s only taking its toll now.
“Watching on TV, those hits always looks so much bigger. I don’t know why but for whatever reason, whenever you’re in the middle, it doesn’t seem as bad.
“When I’m watching on TV, it looks so massive and so fast, even already you can’t really believe you were ever a part of it.”
Following a long line of South African stars who have been adopted as one of their own by the Ulster faithful, Ludik and his family had long since decided to stay in Belfast after rugby with the 34-year-old already busy with the next chapter and enjoying the success of his Hellbent brand of sausages.
“The legends that came before me, they were these Springboks stars and played such a big role here,” he says. “It’s nice to be spoken of like that but I’m certainly not in that same bracket.
“It was a bit surreal when Ulster made such a big deal about my retirement. It was really special but I didn’t really feel like I deserved all the effort that they went to.
“But here has felt like home for a while, we made the decision that we’d be staying quite early on. When we found we’d be eligible to apply for our passports that was it, we decided to make Belfast our home. We sold the house that we had in South Africa and we bought here. We started the business.
“It was a clear and conscious decision for us. A lot of guys aren’t sure what they’re going to do, they maybe still have houses back in South Africa, they might be sending their money back home but we wanted to commit to where we’d end up and put something into it.
“So we started Hellbent, we put a lot of emphasis on that, and it’s been great to have that to fill the gap after rugby.
“The biggest benefit was the day I stopped, I jumped straight into the business. Essentially I retired on a Monday and was working full-time from Tuesday, I wasn’t just sat at home.
“Going from a rugby player to an ex-rugby player, it’s difficult. If you can find identity in something else, that’s huge and I’ve been able to do that.”