Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Clermont and France star SCOTT SPEDDING talks about the three-Test series against South Africa, picking foreign-based players and previews the Top 14 final.
Sport24 asked: How would you describe your rugby journey since leaving South Africa?
Scott Spedding: It has been a long road. I left soon after playing for South Africa against France in the under-21 World Championship final in 2006, which was ironically hosted in Clermont-Ferrand. I left South African rugby because there weren’t playing opportunities for me and I decided I would go and try my hand in France. When I left South Africa, I thought I would head off and have a short-term experience in Europe. However, one year led to two and two led to three, and soon I fell in love with rugby in France. I am very thankful for my family’s sacrifices and unconditional support when I was down and out and struggling at the bottom. My family have supported me since day one, and when I was playing for the junior team at Brive in the infancy of my French sojourn, my father used to send over money each month to help me make ends meet. I arrived in France as a youngster with a backpack and not much else. I forged a professional playing career for myself in France and, six years down the line, when I was selected for the senior national team it was an absolute privilege. I’ve lived my whole adult life in France and to represent this country means the world to me.
Sport24 asked: Will coming back to South Africa with France feel like a full circle moment?
Scott Spedding: The three-Test tour in South Africa is going to be a massive experience for me. The majority of my family are still staying in South Africa and I also have plenty of friends in the country. It’s going to be a special moment playing in front of them. To be coming back to South Africa a decade after leaving the country as a member of the French team is a massive moment not just for me but for my family. It will be a very proud moment for us. To date in my 21-Test match career I have never played against the Springboks, so going back to the country of my birth with France will be a special moment. We are expecting a real contest, which is fantastic and what we want. It was a tough year for the Springboks last term and they will be wanting to put things right. There has always been a healthy rivalry between France and South Africa over the years and plenty of passion between the two proud rugby nations. I don’t expect it to be any different this time around.
Sport24 asked: How do you foresee the Test series panning out with sixth facing seventh?
Scott Spedding: We know that the challenge ahead of us is going to be massive, but are really looking forward to the opportunity to play against a South African team that is under pressure. In contrast, we don’t feel like we have got too much pressure on us and we are really going to give it a good crack. Last year was not where South Africa wanted to be as a team. South Africa is a really proud rugby nation and they are not going to just accept what happened last year. I’m pretty sure that they will be targeting this French tour to get themselves back on track. We know that they are a really proud group of players and they aren’t just going to lie down. It’s a three-Test series and anything can happen after the first match. It’s a bit of a difficult case for us because we have seven players, including myself, who are concerned with the Top 14 final this Sunday. We will only be joining the rest of the squad in South Africa next week Tuesday or Wednesday to prepare for the first Test on Saturday. I’m not sure that we will have exactly the team we would want out there for the first Test in Pretoria, so that does put a damper on things. However, we will still be putting a quality side out and will be targeting the first fixture, because it sets the tone for the series.
Sport24 asked: Emile Ntamack has previously commented: “I think the France team should remain the preserve of French players.” What is your take on the heated debate?
Scott Spedding: I don’t really count myself in that category, because I became a French citizen before I was selected for France and didn’t do that for any rugby reasons. I had been residing in the country for six years before I was chosen for France and I had worked my way up through the ranks of junior rugby. It wasn’t like I had spent three years in the country and then played for France. I believe I paid my dues. I understand that there will always be a few detractors, but in terms of my situation it wasn’t a quick-fix turnaround – I really had to work my way up from the bottom. In life there will always be haters, but the negative comments have been far outweighed by so much positive feedback. Many people have supported me, and those who have seen me come up through the ranks of French rugby were really stoked for me when I earned my international debut. In this business, and in life in general, you can’t please everyone. I know what it means to me and my family to represent France. When I was first selected for national team duty in 2014, I was ready for the criticism because of the politics in French rugby, but the support I’ve received has been incredible. I feel privileged that the French have embraced me in playing for the national side and coming to France has given me priceless opportunities and experiences. France is my home, my child was born here, and as a family we love the lifestyle in Clermont-Ferrand.
Sport24 asked: What impact has Guy Noves made since replacing Philippe Saint-André?
Scott Spedding: Coach Noves took over a team that was at a low level after getting thrown out of the 2015 Rugby World Cup in the quarterfinal after getting smashed by the All Blacks. The years leading up to the 2015 World Cup hadn’t been very good for French rugby and Noves has come in and made a number of changes. He has started from scratch and it has brought a whole new energy to the team. Slowly but surely our performances are getting better and we are starting to get our style of rugby back. It is quite a young squad of players that has been selected for our SA tour. The coach has brought in a number of youngsters and has a kept a handful of experienced players. We finished third in the Six Nations, which we hadn’t done in a long time, and I really feel we are heading in the right direction. The future looks bright and it is fair to say that the coach is trying to get us playing a fast-paced, offloading game, full of flair. We are definitely looking to put an attractive game in place. We are aiming to run the ball more and are creating plenty of opportunities on attack. Against England we made 13 linebreaks to our hosts’ eight, but only scored one try. We only scored eight tries in five Six Nations matches this term, which comes down to a lack of execution. Many times we were too impatient with the last pass and our lack of experience showed in that regard. However, at least now under coach Noves we have the freedom to try things and he will never pull us up for trying something if it doesn’t work out on the field.
Sport24 asked: Allister Coetzee has selected France-based Duane Vermeulen and Frans Steyn. Should South Africa continue to pick foreign-based players who are performing?
Scott Spedding: I think it’s fantastic that they have been chosen for the June Test series and I don’t believe that South Africa should close the door on overseas-based players. Vermeulen is a key player for a star-studded Toulon side, and we all know the class of Steyn, who has been in a really strong Montpellier side this year. The players are here in Europe bettering themselves and if they are the best in their positions then I’m all for them getting selected. Both Vermeulen and Steyn massively warrant their spots in the Springbok squad. They are two of South Africa’s best players and must play for their nation. I believe it is what everyone wants to see at international level. The way the game is going in the professional era, we will continue to see top stars plying their trade abroad. In the past, Super Rugby was perhaps stronger than northern hemisphere tournaments, but the gap has certainly closed. The top South African players in Europe are playing for really competitive teams in strong competitions. For argument’s sake, if you were to watch the Top 14 or the Champions Cup you wouldn’t be able to say that Super Rugby is stronger than those northern competitions.
Sport24 asked: How are you feeling ahead of facing Toulon in the Top 14 final on Sunday?
Scott Spedding: Clermont obviously doesn’t have the best records in finals (having lost 16 major finals in their history) and the last title we won was seven years ago. To have dominated the French championship since and to have won nothing is really disappointing for the club and our massive support base. In terms of what we are doing differently this time, we are not putting too much emphasis on it being a do-or-die final, because that has tripped us up in the past. There has been so much pressure on Clermont and we have tended to lose the way we play. During the regular season, we play an attractive brand of rugby and we try to run it. Historically, when we get to the play-offs we shorten our grip. However, our semi-final win over Racing 92 showed that we are playing with more freedom. We are trying to approach the home final as any other game and aim to express ourselves.
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