Pretoria - It was an interesting statement to hear Springbok hooker and Saracens legend Schalk Brits say his one regret was that he didn’t go overseas earlier, and then in a matter of seconds talk about the need to keep South African rugby players in the country.
Such is the complexity of the exodus of local players that Brits’ point needs to be heard louder by those making the decisions in rugby in this country, especially when it comes to player development.
Because Brits has a point. The hooker said in his first media outing at Loftus Versfeld that the northern hemisphere prepares you a lot quicker as a tight forward for the rigours of the game, especially when compared to Super Rugby where expansive rugby and try-scoring is more an emphasis.
“You never want to look back in history but sometimes I wish I went overseas earlier, more from a perspective of growth. Your game develops faster on other levels than it does here. Your lineout throws, your scrumming, your set phases. But here, and not taking away from Super Rugby but the focus isn’t on that. For me though it is great to still can add value to the group,” Brits said about his long stint at Saracens which raised him to folklore status in the English game.
And he is keen to see South African players heading back from overseas stints do as he has, and play a season at home before retiring – if only to transfer some of that rugby knowledge back to the younger crop playing in South Africa.
“Unfortunately for tight five players, we expect young tight forwards to perform at 22, 23 and 24 and unfortunately it is only later in your career that you become comfortable at hooker or tighthead prop,” Brits says.
“It comes through time and experience and a few slaps you get here and there and a few times you have to pull your head out of your ass in a scrum and then you learn what to do. There is a lot of value that can be added from older players.
“I was at the Cats when they were still the Cats, in 2004 when Marius Hurter came back from Newcastle and just through him and Os (du Randt) next to me I learnt a lot in a short period of time. But unfortunately we lose that intellectual capital early with players. Hopefully my goal is to not only play but to also transfer some of my knowledge over to them and hopefully help them grow rather fast.”
The problem though is the tendency to write players off after one bad season, or consider them over the hill as they reach 24. And inevitably, with the exchange rate, clubs overseas pick these players up and they become stars in the professional game in the northern hemisphere.
“I think that is a tendency in South Africa that if a player has three or four years in Super Rugby then the impression from the public and media is that he is over the hill. Because we have such a young fountain of talent that is up and coming this happens.
“But we forget that through time, you need stable players to help other players shine. So in that way we definitely lose way too much experienced talent overseas, players just below Springbok level that add a lot to any team environment. That is why it is a pity we have more than 300 players playing overseas.
“We have other problems as well but that is one of the problems that we have in SA Rugby. We lose way too many players.”
Brits said he has little expectations for his role at Loftus, other than to do whatever it takes to make the Bulls successful.
“I am here with no expectation, I am here to add value to the team. But if I am chosen, then I expect their support in the team and they will get the same from me. From that point of view I just want to add any value that I can and make the Bulls successful. At the end of the day if the Bulls are successful then I will be successful too.
“I learnt at a later stage in my life how to be a good team man. You are relatively selfish as a youngster but as you get older, you see the dynamics are different. From my point of view I just want to add value. The coach will choose the team as he sees fit and I will support them any way I can. There is a bigger picture and it doesn’t just revolve around me.”
And he is just as excited as his return to Super Rugby.
“I’m very excited about Super Rugby. I haven’t played for a long time and it will be an adjustment because they play another style than I’ve experienced up north and it will take me a little while to get used to it. But it is something I’m looking forward to. The Southern Hemisphere rugby suits my play better and I’m looking forward to it.”
While he is acutely aware of the legacy of the Bulls team of 2005-2010, Brits believes this team needs to set its own standards in order to achieve success.
“I hated the class of 07, 08 and 09. I got punished a lot by them. It’s nice to have Anton (Leonard) here as well. At that stage back in my life I wasn’t good friends with guys like Fourie (du Preez) and the others. You always clashed at provincial level and I wasn’t in the Springbok setup every time it was selected, so I never knew the guys. And when I did I realised they are great guys.
“So for us they were amazing. They are the most successful Bulls team in history but for us now, it is more about reaching our potential. We don’t want to emulate them, they were a group and were a different culture than we are now.
“We are a different group and we want to set our own identity and yet under the Blue Bull flag. The style we want to play is different and from our point of view we just want to show you guys discipline and work ethic and hopefully with that the results will come,” he added.
Brits will play this year’s Super Rugby season for the Bulls with the hope of making the World Cup squad for Japan later this year.
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