Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Bok hooker SCHALK BRITS talks about potentially extending his playing career, Siya Kolisi’s captaincy and Duane Vermeulen’s Rugby Championship absence.
Sport24 asked: How would you summarise a whirlwind few weeks for you?
Schalk Brits: It’s been crazy but I’m loving life. I went from retiring after my final match for Saracens to having a break with the missus and our three boys in Ibiza and then getting a surprise call-up to the Springbok fold. We were celebrating our new chapter together as a family, when I received a text message from Rassie Erasmus asking me to join up with the side. From watching the first Test against England at Ellis Park as a supporter to being involved as a player for the second and third Tests was amazing. My fortnight with the Springboks was an unbelievable time and a memory I will always cherish. It was pretty special to run out for the Springboks at Newlands 10 years after making my international debut at the same ground. It was disappointing to end the series with a defeat but the plan from the beginning for the third and final Test, from Rassie’s perspective, was to try out new combinations. Heading towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, the bottom line is that Rassie won’t pick his best side every weekend because he needs to find out who can play and who can’t. It’s about making sure that his squad is good enough to win the World Cup.
Sport24 asked: How did you enjoy combining a playing and mentoring role?
Schalk Brits: The series was fantastic for me both from a playing and coaching perspective. I want to share my intellectual capital as much as I can from a rugby point of view. What’s great about this young Springbok team is that they have the hunger to learn and the desire to become better players and people. If I can help out off the pitch and then see results on the pitch, it will be extremely rewarding. The role I fulfilled at Saracens is pretty much the same one I’m occupying at the Springboks. It’s about contributing as a player between the four lines but also helping to mentor my team-mates and getting the best out of those around me. It was great assisting where I could in June and working with my fellow hookers in Bongi Mbonambi, Akker van der Merwe and Chiliboy Ralepelle. Even from a young age, it has been about learning as much as I can and then sharing the knowledge I have gained. However, I don’t see myself taking on a long-term coaching role, as it isn’t something I really want to do in the future. My background is in accountancy and I want to go into finance post my professional playing career. However, for the time being, I want to share the knowledge I have accrued. If I can make players one percent better, that is quite satisfying.
Sport24 asked: Are you going to put off your retirement for a further season?
Schalk Brits: Rassie and I will have a chat this week or next on where we are going forward from a rugby perspective. I have enjoyed playing this wonderful game but I took the initial decision to retire because it felt like it was time to move on to the next challenge. Moreover, I wanted to retire on my own terms. However, how can you say no to wearing the green and gold? It’s an honour to be involved and help the team improve. We will see if we can work things out and whether or not Rassie wants me for the Springboks going forward. I’m quite laid back at the moment in terms of where my future lies. If he doesn’t want me to be involved with the team, I will head off to the University of Cambridge to do a master’s degree in business administration and will work for Reinet Investments. The one big thing with 99 percent of rugby players is they unfortunately struggle with transition. So, if there is a company to be involved with after rugby, it’s fantastic. I’m determined to grab the opportunity with both hands and drive that process forward. However, if we can work things out, hopefully I will extend my playing career for a little longer. From a future perspective, it’s a win-win situation for me. There are options to continue my playing career both at home and abroad. However, I don’t know at this stage what option I’m going to take. For me, it will come down to what will be best for my family from a work perspective as well. (Schalk’s wife, Colinda, is a solicitor in London). Having spent nine years at Saracens, it would be difficult for me to play for another UK club. I have invested a lot into Saracens but, if there is no other option, you take the one that is available because beggars can’t be choosers. There are clubs in the northern hemisphere that are interested but, with my requirements, it takes many of them away. Meanwhile, in South Africa I don’t know who would or wouldn’t sign me. Those discussions will take place over the next couple of weeks.
Sport24 asked: Is playing at another World Cup a carrot to continue playing?
Schalk Brits: Playing at the 2019 Rugby World Cup is really the only driving factor for me to continue playing. I thought I would only get involved with the Springboks short-term but, when I saw what kind of work the guys put in and the vision they have through to the next World Cup, it inspired me. Every coach wants to win a World Cup but you need to put the right plans in place to do so. I believe we have the players and the capability to do very well at the World Cup next year and if I can add to that squad it would be fantastic. Rassie and his coaching staff are very technical. They know how they want to play the game and are really precise in terms of their mission and vision for the team. From a player perspective, we work unbelievably hard. It’s quite a good combination. To see a team that is so young beat another over a Test series with three or four more times the caps was something special. It’s quite astonishing what this Bok team has achieved over a very short time period.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess South Africa’s player pool at hooker?
Schalk Brits: Before the three-Test series against England, Malcolm Marx was in the driving seat from a South African hooking perspective. While he probably still is, everybody was worried about the back-up options. However, it was great watching Bongi, Akker and Chiliboy playing and performing over the course of the series. One thing about South African rugby is that we boast a very big and good pool of players. I believe it’s about affording them the right breeding ground to grow in order to become great rugby players. We tend to judge players quite quickly at national level but most take a while to get used to Test match rugby. The hookers in the Springbok squad have different strengths and it’s good to watch them play to those. In terms of Malcolm, he’s a physical beast and plays with plenty of passion. He loves the game and you can see it through his play. It has been great watching him play. Malcolm, who will play his 50th Super Rugby match against the Sharks at Kings Park Stadium on Saturday, was fantastic during last year’s Rugby Championship. Meanwhile, Bongi played very well over the first two Tests and Akker really made a massive impression.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of Adriaan Strauss hanging up his boots?
Schalk Brits: Compliments to Adriaan for captaining our country and being an inspirational figure for South African rugby. He’s a top bloke and player, who I spent plenty of time with during the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. Looking at his Super Rugby performances this season, he has played very well. However, everything comes to an end eventually. He has had a 14-year career he can be proud of. From a future perspective, like myself, he needs to look at what possibilities are out there. For me, the plan was never to become a professional rugby player - it was a way to pay for my studies. However, one thing led to another and I have now been involved with rugby for 18 years. Retiring from club rugby after winning the Aviva Premiership final felt like the right timing. My near decade-long journey with Saracens was an unbelievable ride. I will always be indebted to the club and the people involved there. The way Saracens looked after us as people and not just playing commodities was special. From that point of view, signing for Saracens was the best decision I ever made - even at the cost of losing out on a few Test caps. Being described as the “greatest import the Premiership has ever seen” is very flattering and I really appreciate that compliment. For me, it was always about being open to new people, diverse cultures and different ways of playing. It was also about not changing who I am and staying the same person. In turn, from a rugby perspective, at Saracens we enjoyed a culture of learning and improving irrespective of age. My longevity in the game comes down to being well-managed and Saracens’ rotation policy. They club looks at how they can maximise your career as an athlete. When you don’t have to play 80 minutes every week, it sustains your performance.
Sport24 asked: How big is Duane Vermeulen’s Rugby Championship absence?
Schalk Brits: Duane is an asset to any team he is involved with due to his quality as a player and person. He will be missed on and off the pitch during the Rugby Championship. It’s really difficult that he can’t be part of the four-team tournament but there are some contractual limitations that have come into play. (Vermeulen has joined Kubuto Spears after his contract with French club Toulon recently ended). He will be a massive loss to the national team but it gives opportunity for other players to perform. (Warren Whiteley is tipped to come into the reckoning, having returned from injury). The Springboks are blessed in that they produce a plethora of inspirational leaders and Siya Kolisi is the right man for the job. I’m looking forward to witnessing how he grows as a captain at international level. It was a fantastic day at Ellis Park to see the first black African Test captain lead South Africa. Many people were waiting for that moment for a long time. However, if you take colour out of the equation, Siya has been an unbelievable captain for the Stormers and, having been involved with him in the last few weeks, he was a great leader on and off the pitch. As most leaders do, Siya enjoys a strong support base and everyone was backing him up during the series. Duane’s experience will be missed but the Boks are being led by a great man in Siya.
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