- Former Western Province and Sharks lock Ross Skeate talks about why he believes SA Rugby made a mistake in withdrawing the Springboks from the Rugby Championship and why he isn’t in favour of SA teams heading up north.
- The ex-Emerging Springbok reveals his regret in terms of having never played for the senior national side and how a move to France, a country he has lived in for close on a decade, could well have scuppered his Test match ambitions.
- He also shares his views on the boardroom battles which exist within SA Rugby and how the game is “too political”.
Sport24 asked: What has kept you busy post-playing career?
Ross Skeate: Since playing for the Sharks in Durban, I have lived in France for nine years. I’m fully settled now in the French side of Geneva on Lac Leman. I’ve lived in France for so long I’m probably half-French and half-South African. I have a speciality coffee truck where I roast my own beans and in terms of food, everything revolves around local and organic food. Lockdown hasn’t changed much for me at all and, with a young daughter, my wife and I spend a lot of time at home anyway. The first lockdown was more troubling business-wise because it meant a lot of delays. At the moment, it’s almost like I know lockdown exists but fortunately it doesn’t apply to me and my business... I also worked on a project with Joe Van Niekerk and spent six months living with him in Costa Rica. Joe is amazing and I think we are all spiritual without realising it. Religion can be extremely beautiful and quite a nice path to the end goal – spirituality – but the former can be quite restrictive. I’m not a Buddhist but would consider myself to be extremely spiritual. What I love about Buddhism is the idea of karma and reincarnation. I also believe that love is the root of all religions and that is something we often forget. When we get caught up in the dogma of religion, we forget about love.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your playing career?
Ross Skeate: Mine was a very colourful, interesting career. There were a lot of hits and misses but it taught me so much. Over the course of my career, I played for Western Province, the Sharks and Southern Kings in South Africa and four teams in France. I was with Toulon when we were building the success that they would have in later years. We had the full roster in my first year with the likes of Jerry Collins, Tana Umaga and Jonny Wilkinson. On the flipside of the coin, I played for Agen who were fighting relegation. It was stressful and sucked the fun out of everything. It ended up being a very difficult two years rugby-wise. I also played for Grenoble and finished up my career for Aix-en-Provence down south… The French always tend to get carried away but it’s good to see that the national team is finally getting some results. In France, the amount of rugby talent they have is insane. Playing-wise there is tons of talent but, in my opinion, their biggest problem was that their coaching was always a couple years behind international standards and I assume it still is. Their structures and techniques were way behind the times and when I was playing at Grenoble the coaches only started to introduce technical stuff I’d already done in my early days with Western Province.
Sport24 asked: Which coaches did you least and most enjoy?
Ross Skeate: When I first came out to France there were one or two coaches running the show and they were stuck in an old French style. To offer an example, the coach wanted to do a captain’s run with full-on contact in order to get the boys psyched up before the game the next day. It was very foreign to me as I had come from a very professional Stormers set-up playing Super Rugby... I enjoyed Tana Umaga as a coach in terms of his style, love for the game and his technical knowledge which is massive. I worked with Rassie Erasmus during my time at Western Province. I was with him when he took over at the Stormers and I assume he has matured a lot as a coach since. Rassie is very technically astute but it took me a bit of time to get used to his attention to detail. I don’t know if it is still there but it was insane. Rassie’s attention to detail was next level and his success with South African didn’t surprise me. I was so happy for the Springbok boys to win the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. They were a group of young fellas who 18 months prior to the event had been up against it. Coming into the tournament, they had been slated in the media and by supporters. In South Africa, you lose one game and you are the worst team that Springbok rugby has ever produced. The Boks weren’t favourites heading into the World Cup but they pulled it together and smashed England in the final. From the outside, it seems like such a nice team outfit. They have developed a winning team culture which Rassie has cared for.
Sport24 asked: Do you have any regrets not playing for the Springboks?
Ross Skeate: I definitely regret not playing international rugby or at least even being selected for a greater Springbok squad. At times, I think I shot myself in the foot by coming to France too early. However, when I was playing the game it was a difficult time to be a second-rower in South Africa with the big shadows of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield looming large. Obviously I’m a bit biased because I’m always going to choose southern hemisphere second-rowers ahead of their northern counterparts. I believe the locks are better in the south. Botha and Matfield were so complimentary in their terms of skill-set and were the perfect lock pairing. Andries Bekker was also one of the best athletes I ever played with. He was close to seven foot and could run like the wind which was insane. When we played together it was like this skinny Englishman alongside this huge Dutchman. However, for me, John Eales is the best second rower of all time. He was my childhood hero and I was lucky enough to meet him when in Paris.
Sport24 asked: What is your take on South Africa’s mooted move north?
Ross Skeate: I have got to be honest; I don’t like the idea of South African teams leaving Super Rugby and am against the idea of South Africa potentially joining the Six Nations. Maybe I’m too attached to the old Super Rugby and Rugby Championship formats. I think it will be a pity if we aren’t playing the All Blacks and Wallabies as often as we do. SA Rugby obviously have their reasons for looking to alter competition structures and exploring new markets but I’m sad to hear that the South African sides are set to head north. It sucks that Super Rugby has changed so drastically. There are clearly financial considerations behind the decisions and there is potentially more money in Europe for the Springboks and South African rugby. Here in Europe, South Africa are revered for the rugby nation that they are. There is no doubt that the South African teams will be well-received but I believe that adapting to the weather conditions and refereeing will prove challenging… In terms of the Springboks’ Rugby Championship withdrawal this term, I think that’s a huge mistake. It could be 20 months without Test rugby for the Springboks and that doesn’t make any sense to me. As with any sport at a high level, you need to be doing things consistently and at a high-level of intensity. Test rugby and the Springboks go together like bread and butter. I think it would be a mistake going into the 2021 British and Irish Lions series without any Test match rugby under their belt. The Springboks could well be undercooked against a very competitive and competent touring Lions team. I don’t believe the Boks’ Rugby Championship withdrawal this season was a good idea at all. I hear the arguments being made for player welfare but ultimately I don’t know what happens in the dark boardrooms of SA rugby.
Sport24 asked: Your views on the boardroom battles within SA rugby?
Ross Skeate: If we are to make a very general comparison between New Zealand and South African rugby, boardroom battles are what are holding South African rugby back. Off-field, New Zealand rugby is ahead of the game in terms of how they run the sport. I think the political weight that we have in our professional sport, specifically rugby, is something that holds a lot of teams back and stunts progress within South Africa. The fact that it’s too political is a huge problem for players, coaches and supporters alike. I think it’s something which is embedded within our culture and should be addressed. When I was at Western Province, the amateur side of the board wielded plenty of power and they were very much in charge. It was fine at the time but with the way the game is moving forward in the professional era, the demands on the players is so significant now. Players need to be able to compete week-in and week-out in a game that is extremely taxing and that level of professionalism should apply at all levels and even more importantly for the bureaucrats and administration around the game. Without professionalism at all levels, there is always going to be something holding us back. It’s a pity there is always something political going on and it speaks to the point that there is some level of amateurism still present. I wouldn’t say all administrators are poor – I worked with some amazing ones during my time in South Africa – but I think our rugby is too political. The politicized nature of rugby is difficult for us to deal with.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the masculine culture within rugby?
Ross Skeate: At the roots of the sport, rugby is all about brotherhood and going out to war with them. You form amazing connections in rugby and in that way it is quite inclusive. I think it’s a good thing that (former Wallaby prop) Dan Palmer recently came out as gay. For me, there shouldn’t be homophobic tendencies in the sport and you should accept your brother as he is. There are so many rugby players in the world who are possibly gay and thinking about coming out. It’s good that Dan has been open and honest and it is something that shouldn’t be shunned. In terms of a deeper problem within masculinity as a whole, as men we were taught to shun our emotions, pack them away in a dark corner and not be vulnerable. In a macho sport like rugby, that is emphasised in many ways and in South Africa we are still quite closed off in that way. A quiet, masculine culture exists whereas in Europe, men are more open to being vulnerable and talking about their feelings because the culture is very different.