- Dutch-born Scotland winger Tim Visser, who featured for his adopted nation from 2012 to 2017, talks about his battles with the Springboks and what they will face against the Lions.
- The ex-Edinburgh outside back looks ahead to the introduction of the four South African franchises in the PRO16 and how long it will take before they become a dominant force.
- He also shares his views on why he feels the game has gone soft and how World Rugby is to blame for taking judgement calls away from referees in the modern professional era.
Sport24 asked: How would you reflect on your 33-Test match career?
Tim Visser: Playing for Scotland was a huge honour and something I will always be incredibly proud of. I decided to step back (Visser played his final Test in 2017 against Fiji) but that was certainly not a reflection on Gregor Townsend. I enjoyed the vibe he created and the camp was really positive. I got pulled in and out of the Six Nations squad a couple of times and then at that point I thought it was the natural end for me. I didn’t want to be the guy who hangs on for dear life and gets a few caps here and there. Retiring for Scotland allowed me to focus on Harlequins. The same thing then happened at ‘Quins. I had another year left on my deal and was in and out of the match day squad. There were a lot of good young wingers coming through which made it easier for me to go. It was time to step away and give those players a more consistent chance which they were already grabbing at that point. I went to see Paul Gustard and said, “Listen, I think this is my time.” He tried to change my mind and replied, “We still want you here next year. You are an important member of the squad.” I said, “Yeah, but I’m not here to just hold tackle bags and potentially stop someone else coming in and gaining experience.” We came to an agreement. I left and have never looked back on it. I actually used to hate watching rugby as a player because I got really sick of it but since my retirement my love for the game has really come back and I love supporting Edinburgh and Scotland.
Sport24 asked: Your memories of coming up against the Springboks?
Tim Visser: I faced the Springboks on two occasions and the match at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in Newcastle was a weird one because with 20 minutes to go we were still in a position to win it. Beating the Springboks would have been a fantastic feat and would also have meant a completely different quarter-final draw for us. We ended up playing Australia in that fateful match at Twickenham with the awkward refereeing decision. In 2015, I thought we were much more dominant than we had ever been against the Springboks. The only other time I played against the men in green and gold was three years earlier at Murrayfield in the autumn and we got completely physically outmuscled. I think the Springboks have always had the skill (to play a ball-in-hand game) but they just chose to play really physically and confrontationally which I guess is ingrained in their psyche in South Africa. They want to be known as big, physical men. However, as the game has progressed almost every team in the world has become huge and physical. That development probably spurred the Boks on to have a look at themselves and come up with a unique selling point.
Sport24 asked: Your thoughts ahead of the expanded PRO16 event?
Tim Visser: The PRO16 has gone from strength to strength from starting out as a Celtic league to now including the top four South African franchises. The franchises that have joined are top quality and it makes sense for South Africa being in the same time zone. It should make travel consistently easier as opposed to having had to fly half-way around the world. Leinster have dominated the competition with seven titles to their name but until now have only had to deal with certain types of play. Having spoken to Jamie Roberts, who spent some time playing in Cape Town last year, the game is completely different in South Africa and is so much more open. The South Africans are used to chucking the ball around and running everyone ragged but they are going to have to come to Leinster on a rainy Friday night, for example, and it’s going to be the battle of the high balls which the Irish tend to bombard you with. Adaptation is the buzzword. Do I think the South Africans are going to dominate the PRO16 competition? I reckon it will take the South African teams a couple of seasons to really figure it out because the competition is going to be different. And visa versa, if Leinster have to play on a dry day up at altitude it’s set to prove tricky. Location will play a big role.
Sport24 asked: Your take on Dan Leo’s recent CJ Stander comments?
Tim Visser: I think it’s easy to sit there and say Stander’s retirement “makes a mockery of the game.” In Daniel Leo’s instance, there is a bit of hurt behind those comments because the Pacific Island nations get absolutely depleted of their best players. We need to look at situations where players become eligible to play for an adopted nation on a case by case basis and not paint everything with the same brush. Stander made Ireland his home and has been a fantastic servant for club and country but he wants to return to his motherland where the sun shines most of the time. He has served Ireland really well in a positon that they may have otherwise potentially not had had his quality in. As an Irish fan, you need to be pragmatic about the situation and understand what he has done for the country. We have something similar in Scotland at the moment with Duhan van der Merwe having qualified for Scotland and then signing for Worcester Warriors in England. He has been absolutely fantastic playing for Edinburgh and Scotland but now at literally the first opportunity he has decided to go to Worcester. Because I have experienced it from both sides, I can say rugby is a short-lived career and he has gone down to the Warriors on a pretty big contract. Van der Merwe has done what’s best for him and his family. I always say there is no loyalty in sport and you need to always look out for yourself because when your time is up, the clubs aren’t going to look out for you.
Sport24 asked: On the field, why do you feel the game has gone soft?
Tim Visser: In my opinion, referees need to be able to make judgement calls on the pitch. Rugby isn’t clear-cut. It’s a physical contact sport and sometimes clumsy things happen. During the 2019 World Cup a number of red cards were given out for contact with players in the air. I think World Rugby has taken that judgement call away from referees and it’s almost become like a law system. Some of the red cards in the most recent Six Nations were diabolical. Of course it’s important to protect the players and make rugby a safer sport because you want it to survive in the changing world but it’s going too far. Guys playing at the top level are over 100kg and are fast, strong and quick. Sometimes there are going to be victims – that’s just the way it is. We are playing rugby here, this is not ballet!
Sport24 asked: Would Van der Merwe crack your Lions back three?
Tim Visser: He would. I thought it was a weird one that Duhan was omitted from the Six Nations list of nominees for player of the tournament despite finishing as the top try-scorer. He was absolutely outstanding but I think what worked against him was that Louis Rees-Zammit had such a big breakthrough tournament. Duhan has been fantastic and, as a winger, the most pleasing thing to see is that he has taken his scoring prowess from club to international level. In terms of my first-choice back three for the British & Irish Lions series, Stuart Hogg has been phenomenal and needs to be the starting 15 because he has been that good. On the wing, I think it’s too early for Rees-Zammit because playing against the Springboks is a completely different story. I would throw Van der Merwe on the one wing and Jonny May on the other for good measure. May has been absolutely outstanding. From where he has come from to now – the improvement has been just phenomenal… The Springbok incumbent back three of Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi is lethal so that match-up is juicy! Both Kolbe and Mapimpi have been insane. They can almost attack from anywhere and Le Roux is in the background pulling everything together. It’s a settled back three which is something the Lions don’t traditionally possess because their players are thrown together.
Sport24 asked: When did you come closest to playing for the Lions?
Tim Visser: I believe 2013 was my big moment and best shot. I had been in the league’s dream team for four years in a row, had won top try-scorer each year and was player of the season in the league that year. Everything I had ever done, I did in the years leading up to the tour. Playing for the British & Irish Lions is undoubtedly the highest honour for a player from the four nations. However, to be selected for the Lions, you have to peak at the exact right time and hope that the coach likes you. In 2013 Warren Gatland took the majority of the Welsh team and he must not have liked me as a player. I was in the wider squad but I never made it to the actual selection and he probably thought my defence wasn’t good enough but the defence of some of the wingers that were in that squad wasn’t much better! Some of the call-ups during that tour made a mockery of it. Gatland probably deserves the coaching role based on his past achievements. He won in Australia and drew in New Zealand. However, I feel there needs to be a change at some point. I assume this will potentially be Gatland’s final tour depending on the outcome of the series against the defending world champions.
Sport24 asked: How do you see this year’s series panning out?
Tim Visser: Playing in front of empty stadiums will certainly make it easier from a Lions perspective as they won’t have those huge South African crowds heckling them. It will make the atmosphere slightly more tolerable. I played in South Africa in a quadrangular series in 2013 when I missed out on the Lions tour and it’s a different level over there. The Lions will tackle the world champions in some challenging locations and playing at altitude is no joke. It’s hellish on the lungs! I think the series will be really tight and I wouldn’t want to make a prediction at this point. It’s the most uncertain Lions series we’ve had in recent years and it’s probably going to play out on the pitch too.