Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, STEVEN KITSHOFF talks about his imminent return to SA rugby, why there is a silver lining to SA sides being axed from Super Rugby and the differences he has found living in France.
Sport24 asked: How would you summarise your French sojourn since leaving South Africa in 2015?
Steven Kitshoff: I have had a blast in France since signing for Bordeaux Begles on a two-year deal from the Stormers. I was fortunate enough to join a great team which is well supported. It has been awesome living in Bordeaux, a major wine industry capital, but to be honest I still prefer the lifestyle in Cape Town. I’m not used to shops being closed over lunch time and dinner being served quite late. In terms of learning the language, French has been difficult to pick up and I’m still trying to figure out some of the lingo. However, you always find a way to communicate and get your message across. I’m very glad I came to play in France and have no regrets. I spent five years playing Super Rugby for the Stormers and I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and experience a different rugby culture. I definitely feel as though I have achieved that objective and I have grown as both a player and person in a foreign land. Coming to France develops you as an individual because you are away from your family and friends. However, I have been fortunate to have my fiancée Aimee living with me in France otherwise I would have had to fend for myself. It’s good for young players to give the overseas experience a try and then return to Super Rugby. Young players should always strive to become great national players – my goal has always been to play international rugby at the top level.
Sport24 asked: You are set to become the first player to return home after SA Rugby announced its 30-cap foreign-based player policy. Did the ruling inform your decision to end your French stay?
SK: I had actually made my decision to come back to South Africa before SA Rugby went public with the 30-cap policy. I decided directly after the Springboks’ end-of-year-tour in 2016 that I wanted to head back. Returning to play my rugby in South Africa was always at the back of my mind and it was my intention to make it a short stint overseas because my main goal has always been to play for the Springboks. I will always believe that playing for the Springboks is the biggest dream for South African boys and it will be my dream to play for the Boks until the day I retire. When the 30-cap rule for foreign-based players was announced by SA Rugby (which will take effect from July 1) it was evident for me that I had made the correct decision. I would like to thank my agent and all the people who did the hard work behind the scenes in order to make this deal happen (Kitshoff has agreed a national contract and it is said that WP Rugby assisted SA Rugby in securing his signature). Offering national contracts is a great way of keeping young talent in South Africa. Higher match fees and win bonuses can also go towards convincing players to stay in the country. I’m very thankful that the Stormers were willing to take me back. Cape Town is my home and it’s so much easier playing for a team I already have a history with. I’m looking forward to heading back to the Mother City at the conclusion of the European season and having another crack at playing for the Springboks. However, before my contract expires in June, I’ve got a few matches left to play for Bordeaux and want to leave France with a great impression. We are really determined to end the season on a high.
Sport24 asked: How does the standard of play and coaching in France compare with South Africa?
SK: The standard of play in the Top 14 is slower than what I experienced in Super Rugby. In the former competition, a strong accent is placed on the set-phases and forward-dominated rugby. Super Rugby is played at a higher pace and there is more of a focus on running lines. To be honest, I miss the intensity of training in South Africa and the pace at which we played. Coaches in France are strong in certain aspects of coaching and they place plenty of emphasis on scrummaging and set-pieces. However, when it comes to general play, such as attack and defence, the coaches in SA do a superior job and keep the players on their toes. In France, I decided for myself the way I wanted to play owing to the type of coaching I experienced. As a team, we started of the season playing some great rugby but we struggled somewhat mid-season. We had some problems with the coaching staff and players not being happy. The style of coaching here is very different to what I was accustomed to in SA but I’ve grown as a player and person owing to taking on more decision-making. From a playing perspective, the main benefit for me of being in France has been scrummaging against players from different nationalities and honing my technique. I’ve come up against Frenchman, Romanians, Georgians and Tongans. In general, the scrummaging is tougher and I continue to learn.
Sport24 asked: SA Rugby has retained Allister Coetzee. Why do you believe it was the correct call?
SK: Having worked with Allister at both club and national level, I believe he remains the most suitable man for the job. His knowledge of the game, the staff his surrounds himself with and the way he works with the players are traits I admire about him. He did a great job at the Stormers and I believe he can replicate that at national level and take the Springboks forward after a difficult first season in charge. I’m very happy to hear that he described me as a “long-term prospect” for club and country. It gives me hope and something to work towards. My father always told me that if I kept knocking on the door my chance would come. From a team perspective, I foresee this year being a better season for the Springboks and I’m confident that we will reverse the tide. The three-Test series against France in June will prove a tough first assignment but I believe that if we prepare well physically we can dominate the series. The French are traditionally known for their flair and have enjoyed throwing the ball around in the past but under Guy Noves the current French team is more structured and set-piece driven. It’s also a trend I’ve noticed in the Top 14. The French strengths have become their set-piece play and mauling and that’s where they will aim to take us on.
Sport24 asked: The Stormers are unbeaten this term. What’s your report card on Rob Fleck’s men?
SK: I have been following the Stormers every week and have been watching their matches closely. They have been brilliant and the passion and flair they are playing with is inspiring. I would love to get back in the mix as soon as possible and hopefully contribute to their performances and future success. From a game play point of view, I’ve noticed that they are taking the opportunity to get the ball into the hands of a player in a better position and are embracing a ball-in-hand approach. Some of my teammates at Bordeaux have previously worked with Paul Feeney (Stormers skills coach) at the Blues and have said that when it comes to skills and tactics he is one of the best in the business. I’m looking forward to working with him and developing my ball-carrying ability, getting the ball away after contact and looking for players in space. As South Africans, I feel we have the ball skills to match the New Zealanders and execution under pressure essentially comes down to confidence. When we match our skill level with our physicality and get the ball away to players in better positions, I believe we will enjoy our rugby even more because we will play with a sense of freedom.
Sport24 asked: Super Rugby is set to be restructured. Your take on losing the Cheetahs and Kings?
SK: It would be sad if two South African sides had to lose their spots in Super Rugby. However, I always feel that there is a silver lining. Reducing the number of local franchises would create more playing depth for the remaining South African franchises. If we filter through the talent from teams who have been relegated we can consequently strengthen our Super Rugby teams. In terms of revising the format of the competition, in my opinion, it would make sense to return to a competition whereby each team plays each other once and every year home and away matches are rotated. I truly believe that getting to play each team once off would get the best out of players and if you dominate the competition you would be able to boast that you are a highly effective franchise.
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