Embrose Papier and Matthew Breetzke probably don’t know each other from a bar of soap, but they have a lot in common.
Aged 21 and almost 20, respectively, their being roped in to learn a lot of their craft at Springbok and Proteas level makes the two gifted youngsters something approaching the chosen ones in their sporting codes.
Blue Bulls and former South African Under-20 scrum half Papier had only played 10 Super Rugby games when he was called up in June by Rassie Erasmus, while Breetzke boasted a similar number of appearances when asked by Proteas coach Ottis Gibson to tag along during the recently concluded one-day international series against Zimbabwe.
Of the two, Papier’s lessons have been live ones because he actually sat on the bench for the Boks and made four appearances totalling 24 minutes, while Breetzke was strictly on an observation mission with the Proteas.
The most recent examples of this were former Boks wing Bryan Habana before he made his debut in the 2004 end-of-year tour and Lions all-rounder Wiaan Mulder, who made his bow for the Proteas late last year.
With the rationale behind these relative “bring a boy child to work” affairs learning for said youngsters, what is it that they feel they learnt from their experiences?
“It was interesting because it means they’re looking out for me and want to invest in me,” said the elegant middle order batsman, who admitted that “it was the last thing I expected because it’s not like I was close to selection or anything”.
Papier, who is so new to first-class rugby that he was making his Currie Cup debut against Western Province yesterday, also admitted to being taken aback at making Erasmus’ squad, but believes he had taken the chances availed to him by his then coach John Mitchell.
The scrum half said the lessons had been aplenty since making his debut on the wing against Wales in June: “I’ve learnt so much under [Bok starting scrum half] Faf de Klerk in terms of my game management and from the opportunity to measure myself against the best in the world when I’ve played.
“I’ve learnt about when to run and when to kick, and taking ownership by making the big decisions when I come on to play. And before the Rugby Championship I spent two weeks in Stellenbosch working on my passing, my fitness and my kicking, which I think has improved.”
Breetzke, who trained with the Proteas while with them, reckoned his lessons were less on the skills side and more on the human side:
“It was things like how they deal with failure when things don’t go their way, the fact that they have doubts and that it’s OK to be down and have doubts – you don’t see that on TV.
“They also train a lot smarter – at junior level, you turn up and hit as many balls as you can. They train for what they’re going to play. If they want to work on facing a left-arm seamer or the sweep, that’s what they do.”
Both said the two camps were pretty open with information.
“They [the Proteas] are so open,” remembered Breetzke, who said veteran batsman JP Duminy took him under his wing.
“You don’t have to make conversation with them, they open conversation with you. The day before I was supposed to leave, I told some of the guys that I didn’t want to leave.”
That said, their return to franchise rugby and cricket felt a little like a bump to earth as Breetzke wasn’t included in the Warriors line-up to play the Titans over the weekend, while Papier made his return to the Bulls via the bench.
“I’m not too sure where I stand,” said Breetzke, “but it’s up to me to put up the numbers, being in that environment has given me the hunger to work harder.”
Papier was also practical, pointing out that he and Ivan van Zyl, who started against Province yesterday, had rotated throughout the Super Rugby season and were ranked exactly the same at Boks level.
He did concede to having got a little frustrated at making a few of his appearances on the wing and not being used twice when on the bench by the Boks team management:
“But I had a chat with [backline] coach [Mzwandile] Stick and he said to me I must use every opportunity that comes my way.
“Coach Rassie told me I’m definitely in his plans and he just needed me to be patient and learn at the moment to get experience. He said he wanted me to feel what it’s like to be a Springbok, what it’s like to win and lose as one, and what to be like on and off the field.
“When [New Zealand player] Dan Carter played at the last World Cup, [All Blacks fullback] Beauden Barrett was on the bench; look at him now.”
Breetzke added that he didn’t feel like the call-up to the national team had put pressure on him:
“There’s always pressure in cricket because there are expectations, but I’m quite privileged to have people have expectations of me because it comes from a good place.”