Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, retiring Saracens scrumhalf NEIL DE KOCK talks about the current state of Springbok rugby, whether the Stormers will bounce back and why the Blitzboks are a success story.
Sport24 asked: Why have you decided to call time on your 11-year Saracens career?
Neil de Kock: I feel extremely blessed to have played for as many years as I have, but I can’t keep delaying the inevitable. Physically I feel as though I could have played on for another season, but I would prefer to finish my career at Saracens rather than chase the dream at some other club. It’s been a strange year for me in the sense that I’ve been half-in and half-out this season. Having been involved for so long, it has proved an adjustment getting used to serving as a back-up player. I have operated as the third-choice scrumhalf this season and while it has been frustrating at times, it has also been rewarding mentoring and developing the young scrumhalves within the set-up. In rugby terms, I’m an old man now (De Kock is 38) and I never thought that I’d still be playing professionally. As such, I can have no complaints. I’m still training with the team on a full-time basis until the end of the season and am ready and willing to step into the match-day squad if called upon owing to injury.
Sport24 asked: Do you have any regrets leaving South Africa for England in 2006?
Neil de Kock: As time went on the regret that I felt decreased. After I came over to the UK, I could rest easy in the knowledge that I gave it everything and did my level best to achieve the goals that I had set myself in South Africa. My aim was to play Springbok rugby on a permanent basis, but that didn’t turn out the way I had wanted it to. (De Kock played 10 Tests for the Springboks from 2001 to 2003). The idea was to come to England for a couple of years and finish my playing career in South Africa. However, as it panned out I extended my contract at Saracens and it has been a wonderful journey at the club. The player drain is a real point of concern today and the reality is that SA Rugby is tussling with markets which they can’t compete with financially. There was an argument recently about the responsibility of agents to advise players to stay in South Africa owing to loyalty. However, it’s down to the individual player and what motivates him. Truth be told, many players are driven by lucrative contracts and you can’t hold that against them. In saying that I would like to think that all measures are taken to retain our premier talent because you want your best players turning out for the Springboks. It’s a huge challenge which SA rugby will face for the foreseeable future and there is no magic wand to wave. It’s about getting Springbok rugby back on track and making players aware that having the need and will to play for South Africa must come first before looking overseas.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of Bok rugby ahead of the June series?
Neil de Kock: We need to try to find a team that we can build something around and create consistency so that we have the core of our team playing week-in and week-out together. It was something we saw with great Springbok teams of yesteryear. We now need to pick a squad that can play and grow together for the next four years. I’m excited to see what the Bok class of 2017 is going to do. I believe they will make it incredibly difficult to play against them. They are going to scrap for everything and defend incredibly well. And hopefully given enough time together they will be able to develop their game. I don’t believe we will see a repeat of last season’s results. In saying that, they have a tough start to their international season against France, who are experiencing a resurgence at both club and national level. The French appear to be more structured and pragmatic with Guy Noves, a wily old fox, at the helm. They also boast huge players who pride themselves on their physicality and possess an incredible off-loading game. It’s going to prove a tough ask for a young South African team who haven’t been together for long. However, on the plus side they are catching the visitors at the end of a very long northern hemisphere season. I’m confident the turnaround will begin this year and we will see the Boks get themselves off the floor and move in the right direction.
Sport24 asked: What impact will assistant coach Brendan Venter have on the Boks?
Neil de Kock: Brendan is one of the coaches and people I really look up to. He joined Saracens at a time when we were really struggling, and proved instrumental in turning the club around. Brendan embedded a culture and set of values that the club still lives by today. It’s crucial that culture comes first because teams are driven by the relationships from within. Having experienced it first-hand, I believe Brendan will be instrumental in creating an environment like that at the Springboks. There are very good players in the country - the trick is to get them to perform to their optimum level by giving them the backing, belief and a platform to play without fear of failure. The processes Brendan put in place laid the foundations for what Saracens have achieved today. I admire the way in which he treats players and deals with difficult decisions, and I foresee him making a similar impact with the Boks. He is passionate and driven, and coupled with that he is an incredibly smart rugby man.
Sport24 asked: Which former scrumhalf did you most admire and why?
Neil de Kock: The late Joost van der Westhuizen was a player that I aspired to emulate ever since he burst onto the scene at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. He became a household name and it was quite ironic that eight years later, I was playing alongside him in a World Cup squad. He was a phenomenal athlete and was one of the first names on a team sheet. His drive and determination was second to none and when he trained, he lifted the level of everyone around him owing to his influence. When he was diagnosed with his awful illness (MND) he still had the same steely resolve he showed on the field. He was a legend of the game, but also a great role model in how he dealt with adversity in life.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of Allister Coetzee’s scrumhalf options?
Neil de Kock: There is plenty of talent at scrumhalf for the Springboks and that’s the case with South African rugby in general. I would love to see Francois Hougaard starting regularly at No 9 for South Africa. He qualifies in terms of the 30-cap rule and is a world-class player. Given the experience he has attained at national level and now abroad, it will stand the team in good stead. However, it’s sad to see Cobus Rienach and Faf de Klerk heading abroad, because they don’t have the allotted number of Test caps to continue playing for the Boks beyond the cut-off point of 1 July. Dewaldt Duvenage, Jano Vermaak and Ross Cronje have been selected as the three scrumhalves for the third Springbok training camp. They are good players in their own right, but we cannot discount the likes of Rudy Paige and Piet van Zyl, who I feel are also in the mix and coming into the prime of their careers.
Sport24 asked: Should South Africa look north rather than merge Super Rugby teams?
Neil de Kock: For me, it would be fantastic if South African teams joined northern competition. It makes sense from a logistical perspective in terms of time zones, and the interest it would generate from all the expats in Europe would be immense. It would be wonderful for the rugby community in the UK to see something fresh. Merging SA teams would prove problematic because provincialism within SA rugby has always been rife. Even if some of our Super Rugby teams were to amalgamate, we are still going to face the same challenges. The reality is that half a playing and coaching group will be struggling to find employment. I doubt whether mergers will come to pass on the back of Mark Alexander’s recent comments. I believe it’s going to be trial and error for the next few years, and it rests with SARU and the franchises to come to an agreement that everyone is content with.
Sport24 asked: How will the Stormers bounce back after a nightmare New Zealand tour?
Neil de Kock: We must make no bones about it. The New Zealand teams are streets ahead in terms of their structures and the way they have performed. New Zealand is miles ahead in terms of the strength in depth that they have across the board. It was a steep learning curve for the Stormers (who conceded 24 tries and 155 points in NZ) but in the Stormers’ defence they have been blighted by a devastating injury list this season. I believe playing at home and welcoming a few players back from injury will reignite a good performance from them. I have enjoyed watching my former team and I am a staunch Stormers supporter. I’m desperate to see them turn it around and get back on track starting with a victory over the Blues on Friday evening. The Stormers have their defensive structures in place and I don’t think that they are going to try to reinvent the wheel. It’s a catch-22 for Robbie Fleck because when the defence was outstanding, everyone moaned about the attack and when the attack is firing, everyone moans about the defence. Moving forward, I don’t foresee wholesale personnel changes, but there’ll be an emphasis on where they can improve defensively.
Sport24 asked: What have you made of the Blitzboks’ achievements this season?
Neil de Kock: The Blitzboks have been the real shining light for South African rugby at the moment, and I’m delighted to see them playing so well. I have loved watching them and seeing Neil Powell prove so successful with this group of men has been wonderful. Very much like the All Blacks, they have created a team whereby the loss of any individual is carried by the collective. They have a core group of players who have been phenomenal over the years and they have become an unbelievable unit with so much belief and ability to go out there and perform week-in and week-out. It’s inspiring to watch them in action and I take in every leg of the series I can. Moreover, they have proved a transformation success story. Politics within South African sport is diverse and dynamic and it can become messy, but it’s refreshing to hear Powell say that they see character rather than colour. He won’t be paying lip service because he believes it. To clinch the World Sevens Series before playing in London is a massive achievement. The Blitzboks are in a brilliant place and long may it continue.
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