Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, RORY KOCKOTT talks about the South Africa v France series, why he turned down a big money club move and a potential return to the French team fold.
Sport24 asked: What are your impressions of the series and final Test?
Rory Kockott: The Springboks played well in the first Test at Loftus Versfeld and were full value for their victory. The altitude is not that common in Europe and I felt that might have had an adverse effect on the French. In the second Test in Durban, I expected a more rugged performance from France and didn’t think that they would prove as passive as they were in the opening Test. At Kings Park, France enjoyed more possession (66%-34%) and territory (54%-46%) than South Africa, and made more ball carries, passes, offloads and less tackles. However, what has stood out for me from the Springbok so far this series is their mentality on defence. It has changed since I last watched the Springboks in action. Defence is Springbok assistant coach Brendan Venter’s bread and butter, and the step up in attitude on defence has certainly been apparent. South Africa made 160 tackles to France’s 59 last Saturday and, at one stage, managed to repel 27 phases near their try-line in the second half. The level of fitness and physicality that the Springboks were able to showcase over 80 minutes will certainly go some way towards helping them edge out France, who are on the same track, but possibly won’t be able to keep up physically for the full game. However, France should be up for the third and final Test mentally because Guy Noves is a managerial figure who motivates the players more from a humanitarian side than a tactical perspective.
Sport24 asked: Did you leave South Africa in 2011 with any regrets?
Rory Kockott: Times goes by very quickly - it doesn’t feel like I made the move as many as six years ago. It’s a massive learning curve in any professional’s career to relocate to another country and culture and immerse yourself therein. I was never content stopping where I ended my rugby career in South Africa and the dream was always to continue. However, like many sporting professionals in this world, you have to take your opportunities. I have learned a lot of things about myself and the game that I might not have experienced had I stayed put in Durban or Johannesburg. My time in France has been really good to me and I appreciate that. When I joined Castres in July 2011, I decided to start afresh and sometimes the most important thing in life is to challenge yourself. Many South African players have since taken opportunities to play overseas, expose themselves to a different type of rugby and accelerate their professional playing careers. I have come to realise that it’s only when you leave your comfort zone that you become aware of just how much you can do. I have also learned about the difference between what makes a good rugby player and a great one. Every professional journey is different and while it’s a fine line between being good and great, it’s not a once-off. You can never afford to be self-righteous and think that you are bigger than the journey itself. I continue to put in the hard work and I respect the process.
Sport24 asked: How close did you come to signing for Toulon in 2014?
Rory Kockott: At the time, I weighed up the pros and cons and it certainly might have been more interesting to move. It’s apparently all about the money in France, but Castres is not a club with the biggest budget. However, having created the relationships that I had at Castres and feeling an important part of the environment, I decided that it was certainly not worth leaving the club for other reasons. We weren’t happy with finishing fifth in the Top 14 last season, but we are on a project to develop our performances year on year and hopefully next year we will progress and make it even further. The French season is the longest in Europe and there is a good reason why they call it the ‘human abattoir’ because you go in at the start of the season and come out with a few pieces of flesh chopped off at the end of nine months. It is an extremely attritional championship and different to the type of rugby I experienced in Super Rugby during my time with the Sharks and Lions. (Kockott played 50 Super Rugby matches for the Sharks from 2007 to 2010 and 12 games for the Lions in 2011.)
Sport24 asked: How has scrumhalf played evolved and who was your hero?
Rory Kockott: When I started, scrumhalf play was completely different. I’m not saying I’m old (Kockott is 30), but I see the oval-shaped game evolve every two to three years. The role of a scrumhalf in the modern professional era is about moving the ball at pace and leaving opposition defences in the dust. In terms of a scrumhalf I really admired, the late Joost van der Westhuizen stands out. Joost revolutionised scrumhalf play owing to the era he was playing in. He wasn’t scared in the big moments to take chances and most of them paid off. I have to thank Joost for being my motivation to always attack the blindside. He was a legend.
Sport24 asked: Do you still dream of playing Tests having last played in 2015?
Rory Kockott: As a professional player, you always aspire to higher levels and I wouldn’t be playing rugby if I didn’t. (In terms of keeping in touch with Noves and the coaching staff) it’s not a line of communication that I rely on. Personally, I just have to concentrate on giving my best for my club because they are the ones who have supported me the whole way and I need to give back to them as much as I can. I always said that I would like to come back to South Africa, but at the moment I’m committed to French rugby and know what I need to do in France. And, until I come to a further decision, I will continue to play my rugby in France that is for sure. I feel as though my return to the French national team will come if it is meant to be. FFR president Bernard Laporte’s policy on foreign-born players has proved controversial (foreign-born players who currently play for France will remain eligible, but new players will require a French passport.) I believe it’s a stance to improve French rugby.
Sport24 asked: How will Francois Hougaard adjust to starting at Ellis Park?
Rory Kockott: I have played 11 Tests for France and have started twice. Some people may differ in terms of opinion, but I believe there is definitely a difference in mentality when you know you are starting, as opposed to coming off the bench. Hougaard certainly has the individual qualities of a world-class player and hopefully he realises his potential for South Africa. In the first two Tests he had to be patient and wait for his opportunity from the bench because Ross Cronje was the starting nine. When you are on the bench and come on, you know that whatever you have seen for the past, 50, 60 or 70 minutes you have to improve on and stamp your mark. Hougaard has looked lively whenever he has taken to the field over the Test series (he has played a total of 32 minutes in Pretoria and Durban) and on Saturday in Johannesburg he will be aiming to replicate the type of form he produced on a regular basis for Worcester Warriors in the Aviva Premiership during the 2016-17 campaign.
Previous Q&A chats:
Neil de Kock
Bakkies BothaRohan Janse van Rensburg