Evening Standard

Worldly wise: Schalk Brits loves the Premiership, even though it has damaged his Springbok ambitions. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

You would expect Schalk Brits to pretend that the Rugby World Cup is not taking place. Voted Players’ Player of the Year in the Premiership two seasons ago, he was man of the match in the Grand Final in May when Saracens became champions for the first time. Despite this, the Springbok hooker will not be in New Zealand as his country excludes players who ply their trade overseas.

“To play in the World Cup is the greatest thing for a player and I’ve never been to one,” he says ruefully. “But there’s more to life than just that. I’ve got a family and friends who are way more important than rugby, a club who love me and who I love. I made my peace about not going to New Zealand quite a while ago.”

Once the six-week tournament kicks off on September 9 Brits will follow as much of it as he can on television and is eagerly keeping up with the various warm-up matches. Moments after England beat Wales on Saturday, his phone was humming with messages from his Saracens team-mates in Martin Johnson’s camp, including fellow South African Mouritz Botha, who won his first cap as a replacement.

“If England can just get their kicking game up to scratch and play in the right areas, they could win this World Cup,” Brits says. “I really think they’ve got a chance. Attack isn’t such a big deal in the World Cup. Look at previous tournaments: people are scared to take chances, so your kicking game dominates and your defence dominates.

“England’s defence is normally good, even though against Wales it looked shaky. During the Six Nations, the set-pieces were really good, they’ve got a great scrum and a great 10.”

That No10 on Saturday was Jonny Wilkinson and Brits says: “Toby Flood is an awesome player and has played some good rugby for Leicester but I’d still play Wilkinson in the World Cup.”

Brits believes he has developed as a player here and thinks the game in his homeland would do well to study the Premiership.

“No, I am not just being nice about England,” he says. “There is so much to learn from English rugby. South Africans need to learn technical skills about scrums from the English. We South Africans are blessed with size and naturally a lot of strength. The English are not as big but are more efficient, technically better. In the two years in the Premiership, I’ve learned so much about scrummaging, I can’t even define it. It’s tougher and I’m more focused.”

Praise, indeed, but then Brits has never been afraid to express the unexpected. He earned his nickname ‘Diamond’ because he hates doing the rugby drills in training. “I am like a diamond point – a bit out of the box and coaches don’t like it.”

For Brendan Venter, Saracens’ former director of rugby, he was a most unusual diamond point – a hooker who was fast, wise and redefined the role. In his view Brits is a No2 who plays like a No8, a position where he started his career, sprinting like a winger and side stepping like a half-back.

This evolution was also helped living in Mossel Bay in Western Province, a three-hour drive from Cape Town, where Brits got to grips with the game on the beaches. He says: “On the sand, it’s more difficult to beat your opponent and you learn to sidestep.”

But it was not just conventional rugby thinking that Brits has sidestepped. He also wanted to see the world, even though this was diminishing his chances of playing for his country.

Brits won the last of his three caps in 2008, while he was at his South African club Stormer, and since moving to Saracens the following year has been in the shadow of first choices John Smit and Bismarck du Plessis.

However, Brits has no regrets and says: “For me, rugby isn’t always about playing for my country. I wanted to experience different cultures, see different worlds. London is so rich in diversity, an international city. Then you drive an hour from London and you’ve got people that are English through and through.”

What heightens this pleasure is that, in London, he can get lost in the crowd. Such anonymity would be impossible in his native South Africa.

Brits, who went back to play for Stormers during the close season, explains: “Here I can go to dinner with my wife and nobody knows who I am. In South Africa I can’t. If you go for lunch or dinner, people greet you.

“This is going to sound rude but there were five fans wanting me to sign shirts after the practice session here. Back home there would be 5,000. You can’t stand there for six hours so you sign as many as you can. They are so fanatical, they stop the car. So you literally have to lie on the back seat and hide as the car drives away. I do not miss that.”

What he likes about rugby is that it is a game in which the players interact with the crowd. He says this well aware of how one interaction at Leicester two seasons ago went so wrong that he was reprimanded by the Rugby Football Union after making an abusive gesture towards a spectator.

“First of all what I did was wrong,” admits Brits. “I was on the pitch and got concussed. They wanted to get me off the pitch. I didn’t want to go and got into an argument with our physiotherapist. I said: ‘I can’t leave the team now, it’s the first time we’re going to win at Welford Road.’ So I took ages to get off the pitch and the crowd started booing and giving me some stick. This one chap was really having a go at me, so I threw this up to him.”

As he speaks, Brits gestures with his middle finger imitating his action that day. “When I sat down I knew I shouldn’t have done it. So after the game, I went to the guy and apologised. I’m glad I could find him.”

But one guy he clearly would not want to meet again is Gavin Henson. The Welshman was for a time a colleague last season but, when I ask Brits what it was like playing with the star of Strictly Come Dancing, he goes very quiet and says: “No comment.” It is clear the ever so forthcoming South African does not want to go any further.

In contrast, the 30-year-old would much rather talk about his post-rugby plans. “I wanted to become a banker, still want to. I’m studying management accountancy. I would really love to work in investment banking.”

Not that he has put his mind to the current economic crisis. For the moment, he says: “I’m just enjoying where I am now, the future will sort itself out.”


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