Schalk Brits’ contributions on and off the field for the Springboks have vindicated Rassie Erasmus’ decision to persuade the veteran hooker to come out of retirement, writes JOHN GOLIATH.
Schalk Brits waved to the crowd when he left the field during the World Cup match against Canada like he knew it was his last Test match in the Springbok jersey.
His 38-year-old legs struggled to get him off the park, but he came off with a smile and a bow, many of them. It could be the culmination of a rugby career that will be more remembered for his feats with English Premiership side Saracens, where he won numerous titles, than his achievements in the green and gold.
Brits has played only 15 Test matches for Boks since making his debut under Peter de Villiers in 2008 as a dynamic, fleet-footed hooker. But over the past 11 years he has had to compete with the likes of John Smit and Bismarck du Plessis, and more recently Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi.
His size has always counted against him in the South African context, where the magnitude of your calves seemed to be the determining factor of your ability as a rugby player. But in England he showcased his talents in a Saracens team renowned for their direct style of play.
He won the Players’ Player of the Year award in his first season at the club, before being awarded the Man of the Match in the final the following season. In 2018 he retired from the game as a Saracens great.
A lot of eyebrows were raised when Bok boss Rassie Erasmus persuaded him to come out of retirement to have a crack at the World Cup. He was on his way to do an MBA at Oxford University when Erasmus came calling. A job in the world of finance was waiting.
At the time the Bok hooker stocks were also looking good, with Marx, Mbonambi and Akker van der Merwe the three players earmarked for the World Cup. There were question marks about Brits’ desire and ability to compete at the highest level again after hanging up his boots not too long ago. Would Vodacom Super Rugby not be too fast for his aging legs?
However, Brits proved that age is nothing but a number for the Vodacom Bulls and was probably the best hooker in the country in the first couple of rounds in Super Rugby. He then earned his place in the Bok team, by still running around and stepping past players like a 21-year-old.
But Erasmus didn’t just want Brits in the side as a third hooker. When he asked him to come back and play for the Boks ahead of the World Cup, he envisaged multiple key roles for the veteran to fulfil before and during the sport’s showpiece event in Japan.
Brits’ first role has been mentorship to Mbonambi and Marx, whose lineout throwing hasn’t always been up to the standard of their play in the other areas of the game. Both do wonderful work around the park and are potent defenders and carriers, but they were always prone to the odd botched lineout.
Brits’ input, along with forwards coach Matt Proudfoot, have definitely brought improvement in both hookers’ lineout play, as this set piece has been a weapon for the Boks so far at the World Cup.
But Brits has also been the unofficial captain of the so-called ‘B team’.
Victor Matfield mentioned on television after the Canada clash that it’s a similar role to what Bob Skindstad played in 2007 in France, where he kept the ‘dirties’ motivated to keep fighting for a chance to start in the big matches. ‘It also helps that he likes the odd beer,’ Matfield joked.
Brits has fulfilled all these roles with aplomb and with a big smile on his face. It’s a smile that has captured the imagination of the Japanese people, as well as many around the world.
Brits may not have spent a lot of time in the Bok jersey over the last 10 years, but his contributions over the last year is worth its weight in green and gold.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports via Hollywoodbets