Brits's loyalty to the Boks strikes a chord
“You only realise when you go away what an honour and a privilege it is to play for this team and this country.” These are the words of Schalk Brits, who is on the bench for the Springboks in Saturday’s Test against Wales in Durban. They came less than 24 hours after Frans Steyn was withdrawn from the squad “at his own request”, thereby offering an interesting contrast.
Steyn has 53 Test caps and a World Cup winner’s medal. His three-year stint at Racing Metro is rumoured to have been worth R20-million. At the age of 27, he has seized the olive branch offered by Jake White and has been the standout player for the Sharks all season. He will rejoin their Super Rugby campaign when the June international window closes.
If Brits comes off the bench on Saturday against Wales, he will win his sixth cap. In August, he is due to begin his sixth season at Saracens in London. Saracens have a salary cap in place, which means that Brits would have earned much the same had he stayed with Western Province and the Stormers from 2009 to the present.
The interesting thing is that Steyn appears to be unhappy with his lot, while Brits is living the dream. Now 33, Brits has signed a two-year extension to his contract with Saracens and already has a career outside the game, using the accountancy degree he gained at Stellenbosch by working for investment company Remgro.
He was first contacted by Heyneke Meyer in 2012 but says that he has a whole new perspective on his current stint with the national side.
“This is a new outlook for me. If I hold the tackle bag, or play two minutes or 20 – or even a full game – I’m happy. Because they don’t owe you anything; it’s a service that you can be here. For me, it’s a gift.”
Of all the South African players who have moved overseas in the past decade, Brits is probably the player most frequently cited as someone who could jump on a plane and make a difference to the Springbok team. He chose to leave for two reasons: to enjoy a new experience and to acknowledge that, as long as John Smit was captaining the Springboks, his opportunities at the highest level would be extremely limited.
“Before I joined Saracens, I phoned [then Springbok coach] Peter de Villiers, and he said: ‘If you play in South Africa, you will be considered. If you don’t, I will always pick the local guy first.’
“If I had been the first choice, it would obviously have been different, but we are very fortunate in this country to have so many great hookers. So I went because I had been playing Super Rugby for eight seasons and I needed a fresh start.”
Another of Meyer’s “foreign legion” is the Toulouse prop Gurthro Steenkamp who, like Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and others, thought that his international career had come to a close on a disappointing note in Wellington three years ago.
Steenkamp will win his 50th cap on Saturday and said: “At the end of the last World Cup, a lot of us assumed it would be our last Test in the Springbok jersey. Fortunately, Heyneke has given us another opportunity. It’s one that we cherish and we enjoy every match as if it’s our last. Each time being back in the team is like being part of the Springbok squad for the first time.”
Alongside Steenkamp at the media conference on Wednesday sat Cheetahs lock Lood de Jager, for whom this is all new. De Jager was included in Meyer’s squad of 35 for the incoming tour but expected to be holding the tackle bags – until this week.
His Springbok colours arrived thanks to the wedding of Flip van der Merwe’s brother, rendering the lock unavailable for the Wales game, but according to Meyer, De Jager has what it takes to win 50 caps.
The coach also acknowledged the position of power he finds himself in. “One of the nice things about being a coach is that you only realise what it means to players once you tell them they’re going to be in the team. It was just great to see his face and the excitement; he can’t wait to go,” Meyer said.
‘Everyone is special’
Brits also mentioned the strong team environment. “For me it’s fantastic. Everyone is special and the communication is very good. You know where you stand from a rugby perspective and from a personal perspective. That’s why I think the coaching core and the players as a group are happy and they have got a great future ahead of them.”
Which makes it even more surprising that Steyn has chosen to give all this up, especially in view of the one public utterance he has made on the matter: “The environment in the Springbok squad is fantastic and I would like to state categorically that my relationship with Heyneke Meyer, the rest of the management and my team-mates is very good,” he said.
There are several reasons being given for Steyn’s leave of absence. A persistent knee injury is at the top of the list. There was talk when the initial training squad was put together that the Sharks would not let Steyn attend. As it transpired he went, but hardly trained at all. It has been suggested that Steyn believes he hasn’t long left as a player and wants to nurse himself through to the World Cup.
But we have been here before. Steyn signed for Racing Metro because he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. At the end of the Super Rugby season, he will join a Japanese club and the likelihood is that it will be for the same reason. He is a young man with outrageous talent but an insufficient appreciation of the privileges it has afforded him.
You get the feeling he could do with Schalk Brits as a roommate, who said: “In 2012, when Heyneke first called me back into the squad, I didn’t value it as much as I do now. I’m embracing every second of the experience.”