Christian Stewart chats to Sport24

Christian Stewart in action for Canada against Scotland in 1995
Christian Stewart in action for Canada against Scotland in 1995

Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Canada and South Africa international CHRISTIAN STEWART talks about the shortfalls of the Springbok 10-12 axis, their playoff hopes and serving Kobe steak to Helen Zille.

Sport24 asked: What was your review of South Africa’s rout of Canada?

Christian Stewart: The Springboks were absolutely superb against a very ordinary Canadian side, so it’s difficult to tell how primed the men in green and gold will be for the quarter-final stage. Canadian rugby is still completely amateur and, until they get into a competitive competition, their game is going to remain at its current level. Rugby in Canada has remained a largely amateur sport and most of their best players play in foreign leagues. As soon as they are good enough, they leave the Canadian league to play in Japan or the UK. Until that changes, the status quo will remain. However, even given the fact that it was an ordinary Canadian side, the Springboks looked very impressive. If the Springboks pick the right combinations and make those critical selections, which I think they need to make, I believe they will be very difficult to beat. I don’t know whether the Springboks will win the 2019 World Cup, but I would back them to reach the final come 2 November.

Sport24 asked: How did you end up representing both national teams?

Christian Stewart: I was born in Canada, but spent the first five seasons of my rugby career playing in South Africa. My mother is Canadian and father is South African. Someone at one of the Canadian clubs had watched the Currie Cup final and got hold of me after they discovered that I was born in Toronto. The club got in touch and said, “Come play for us and try get into the Canadian national side.” I thought, “What the hell, why not?” I went over for the 1991 season and was included in Canada’s World Cup squad that same year…. (Stewart played 14 Test matches for Canada and represented them at two World Cups). I had stopped playing for Canada in 1991 and I thought that was the end of it as I had returned to South Africa. It’s a long story, but I was actually selected for South Africa to play a match against Samoa. Kitch Christie selected me at No 12 in the Test match before the 1995 World Cup, but things didn’t go according to plan. Team management went to the IRB to check my status and they came back to say that because I had played for Canada in 1994 (I had hopped on their tour to Italy at the last minute) a three-year ban would come into effect. I got the dreaded call from Edward Griffiths (then SARU CEO) to say I had been banned for three years. If I wasn’t banned and I would most probably have represented the Springboks and not Canada in the 1995 Rugby World Cup! In terms of World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot being outspoken about less foreign-born players playing for adopted nations, I think it’s the right thing. Nevertheless, it’s a difficult one because it’s become a global game. But there is something strange about an 'oke' called Lappies Labuschagne captaining Japan even though it’s great for the growth of the oval game.

Sport24 asked: Why do you see the Boks falling short of their third title?

Christian Stewart: I don’t know whether the Boks are good enough to beat England or New Zealand because the latter two teams can step up a notch. With George Ford and Owen Farrell in the 10-12 axis, England can click it up to a different gear and their attacking intelligence is superior to South Africa’s. South Africa doesn’t have the 10-12 combination to really play. I’m a fan of Damian de Allende and Frans Steyn as rugby players, but I think that the way we have decided to play the game is that we want those guys to smash it up as opposed to structure play. If you look at Farrell’s attributes he has no step and no pace, but he’s an unbelievable 12. That tells you something about what the 12 should be doing. Rassie doesn’t want our 12s to be structuring play, he wants our 12s to be target runners and ball-carriers. It’s why the Boks wouldn’t go with a Handre Pollard-type player at 12. If the Boks go on to win the World Cup it will be fantastic, but if they don’t I think we will look back at this World Cup and say, “We didn’t quite get the 10-12 combination right.” I believe that is where we could lose it. The big game of the World Cup is going to be New Zealand-England. At this point, they would arguably be the two favourites. However, it would be wonderful to see a New Zealand-South Africa final. I just think the overall intelligence on attack of both England and New Zealand is superior. In terms of their attacking intelligence, they are ahead of the game at this time.

Sport24 asked: What would be your preferred 10-12 Springbok pairing?

Christian Stewart: I would be very tempted to pick Elton Jantjies at No.10 and Pollard at 12. Jantjies is a great structurer of play, but I don’t think he has convinced at Test level and don’t know if Rassie Erasmus is going to be able to pick him in the big games. If I was the coach, I don’t know if I would pick Jantjies at flyhalf to be honest. I would definitely not say that he lacks BMT (big match temperament) but I don’t know that Jantjies has inspired the confidence at the highest level. It’s a pity because he has a great rugby brain, is a brilliant structurer of play and a Jantjies/Pollard combination, with De Allende or Lukhanyo Am at 13 would make sense. However, the reality is that I don’t think Rassie is going to take that chance. He is a highly intelligent coach and has chosen to play a certain way. He wants the 12 to take it up. It’s a different style of play and it might end up winning us a World Cup title. Time will tell and it’s going to be fascinating watching that unfold. In terms of Damian Willemse (who replaced the injured Jesse Kriel and was on the standby list) I regard him as a special talent and would love to see him playing at No 10 or 12 for South Africa in the future. If I was within the national coaching set-up, I would sit with him for three weeks and show him video footage of Ford and Farrell and say, “That’s how I want you to play. I don’t want you to step 12 people every time you get the ball, I want you to watch the way Ford and Farrell structure play.” We might go on to beat England, so one has to be cautious in being outspoken at this point. Rassie’s game-plan to take the ball up at inside centre might end up proving successful. It remains to be seen whether a big, ball-carrying No.12, as opposed to one who structures play, will be the differentiator.

Sport24 asked: Your take on reports Newlands will be sold and torn down?

Christian Stewart: I think the mooted sale and demolition of Newlands rugby stadium has been inevitable since the Cape Town Stadium was built. (The exact timeline for the bulldozers moving in remains uncertain). It’s in a far better precinct and there is far more night-life post the event in Green Point. It’s the right decision and was just a matter of time. You don’t need two stadiums and one of them - Newlands - has got to go because you have got a world-class stadium in the form of Cape Town Stadium and you’ve got to use it. Those holding onto the history and sentiment of Newlands have a very valid argument, but unfortunately the economics of having two stadiums doesn’t work. The economics have to take priority over sentiment. Big investment coming into rugby clubs is brilliant and, for me, it’s the only way forward because the game has got to professionalise.

Sport24 asked: Are red cards harming the World Cup and the game itself?

Christian Stewart: Yes. I think that the most obvious law change in the game today should be that for a red card someone has to sit out for 10 minutes and then be replaced by another player. To destroy the spectacle because a player goes off doesn’t make sense. For instance, if during a World Cup final somebody is sent off in the second minute, it kills the spectacle and the contest as a whole. You have to ask yourself the question: Is the game about the players’ safety or the spectators? For me, it’s got to be about both, so you can’t destroy the game. In terms of Josh Larsen’s dangerous cleanout of Thomas du Toit, unfortunately it did warrant a red card. (Larsen became the sixth player of the World Cup to receive a red card - two more than any previous tournament even before the group stages have concluded). Oddly enough, I think it served Canada’s purpose because as soon as they went down to 14 men, South Africa just stopped. It’s difficult to be at your best knowing you are playing against a depleted side. The red card brought back memories of the Battle of Boet Erasmus in 1995. When the now infamous fight broke out, I was actually talking to Brendan Venter about what we would do after the World Cup to make some money. I wasn’t involved in the fight at all - I walked back to my position and Brendan and I were honestly chatting about what we were going to do after the World Cup work-wise because it was still an amateur sport during those days.

Sport24 asked: Who would you select as dream dinner guests and why?

Christian Stewart: In terms of politics, I would definitely invite Helen Zille. I will probably lose a few friends for saying it, but I think she should be running the country and don’t care what colour she is! In terms of sportsmen, it would have to be Ernie Els and Siya Kolisi. Ernie is a great human being and he transcends sport with his personality. Meanwhile, Siya is the face of the new South Africa and maybe he could go into politics with Helen when he calls time on his playing career. I would have Jack Parow over to provide the evening’s entertainment and we would enjoy Kobe steak for dinner.

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