London - He may be a Springbok hooker himself, but Schalk Brits is glad
suggestions that English Premiership side Saracens are a kind of South
African outpost in Europe are starting to fade.
This weekend will see the London club face Paris's Racing 92 in the European Champions Cup final in Lyon.
Saracens' starting side for the showpiece match is likely to feature
six members of the England squad that won this season's Six Nations with
a grand slam - Alex Goode, Owen Farrell, Billy and Mako Vunipola,
George Kruis and Maro Itoje.
It's a far cry from the club Brits joined in 2009, when he was one of
several South African players in a squad coached by Brendan Venter, the
former Springbok centre.
That November a drop goal by Derick Hougaard, another South African
or 'Saffa' as they are nicknamed, gave Saracens a one-point win over the
Springboks at Wembley.
After years of being bankrolled solely in the professional era by
wealthy British businessman Nigel Wray, South African billionaire Johann
Rupert took a 50 percent stake in a Saracens side whose then chief
executive, Edward Griffiths, had made his name helping organise the 1995
World Cup in South Africa.
"When I arrived here they said there were a lot of Saffas (South
Africans) at the club, but the essence way back then was always to make
it a feeding ground for English players to come through," Brits told AFP
in an interview at Saracens' training ground.
"Yes we want expats but they must help the Owens (Farrells) and Jamie
Georges to come through. It's great to see what the academy has done."
The early days of professionalism saw Saracens sign a host of
international stars, including South Africa's 1995 World Cup-winning
captain Francois Pienaar and Australia great Michael Lynagh.
As the years rolled on, they became increasingly known for
high-profile signings such as former New Zealand scrum-half Justin
Marshall, while at the same time not winning major trophies.
But 2011 saw Saracens win the
Premiership title, a feat they repeated last season, although 2014 ended
in the double disappointment of losing both the European and
Premiership finals for a side, as they are now, coached by former
Ireland centre Mark McCall.
"We are not liked much because, most of the time, people don't
understand or like the way we do things," said the 34-year-old Brits,
who has started in 96 of his 120 senior matches for Saracens.
"I don't think the opposition like it when we go on trips, have fun and are still successful."
He added: "I read a couple of articles saying that at one time they
wanted to make Saracens a South African side in London. Before that, it
was seen as a club that buys players and they don't really perform.
"But since Brendan (Venter) changed the culture of the club, it has been successful."
Two years ago, Saracens suffered a comprehensive 23-6 European Cup
final defeat by a Toulon side boasting the likes of England great Jonny
Wilkinson and Australia's Matt Giteau.
"In 2014, we were bit like a deer in the headlights," said Brits.
"But I think we've developed, it's two years later and the boys have
learnt a lot.
"To play in any final is really sweet... The whole team feels the same, I'm raring to go."