(Photo: Getty Images)
By Nick Cain
Schalk Brits has blazed a trail with such brilliance during his stint at Saracens that he could have come from Planet Krypton rather than South Africa.
The hooker’s contribution has been so out of this world that any Sarries fan would happily tell Schalk’s three young boys that Superman has been resident at Allianz Park for the last eight years – while also living under the same roof as them in St Albans.
After being persuaded to stay on for one last hurrah this season the 36-year-old Brits started it in meteoric fashion in the Twickenham double-header, doing a one man demolition job on Northampton which was one of the most remarkable individual performances on that famous ground by any player of any age.
It convinced me that if an explosive runner like Brits had been born in any major rugby nation outside South Africa – where they still favour big set-piece bruisers with half his skill and dynamism – he would have won at least 70 caps rather than the ten he eventually won for the Springboks.
Unfortunately, the Brits highlights reel has been interrupted for much of this season by injury, first by an appendix operation in October, and then for three months after he tore an adductor muscle at the end of November against Exeter.
It has come at a cost, with Saracens suffering a bad mid-season dip at a time when the hooker’s extraordinary play-making and try-scoring ability – not to mention to his experience, energy and combativeness – would have been invaluable. Soon after his return to action the club suffered another setback, losing their European champions title after a quarter-final defeat by Leinster.
However, Brits is not easily knocked down and says that he and Saracens are still up for the fight for the Premiership. It illustrates not only his contagious enthusiasm, but the psyche of a winner who has helped the club to three Premiership titles and two consecutive European Cup triumphs in his time with them.
He says: “We have a great shout – but it’s about the cliche of constantly improving. It makes it easier that we are not in the European Cup, because in the last five years in the knock-out stages we have played 22 more games than all the other Premiership teams. That’s a full season – and that’s tough.”
Despite champions Exeter having a handy lead at the top of the table Brits insists: “I think we can win it. We were very close against Exeter last year, but they were the better team on the day. This time we will be looking to get some rest weeks – and we had a great trip to Valencia on the European semi-final weekend. Let’s call it ‘social capital’. When you go to ‘war’ you want to know the guy next to you, have a beer and talk about how his life is.”
Brits says he sees Saracens bouncing back from a sapping schedule to challenge on all fronts next season. “From a squad perspective there is no Lions tour, so our international players will have more time to prepare. No-one can sustain peak form for 12 months. This time it never felt like we could kick on. Our Lions came back but were away almost immediately with the Autumn internationals, so you lose momentum.”
He also has great faith in the new Saracens generation. “They will learn a lot of lessons and be more mature. You see a Maro Itoje or Nick Isiekwe, they are still kids, but they have performed unbelievably – and we have more guys in the Academy with unbelievable potential. That’s why we do not separate the senior squad and the Academy. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
Which begs the question does Brits see a young South African side beating England in their three-test June tour?
“South Africa have lost the Schalk Burgers and Bryan Habanas from the last World Cup, so it is a very young Springbok team. But I think Rassie Erasmus is a great coach: one of the best I’ve worked under. South Africa will always play better if they feel threatened, and players will be looking to impress Erasmus to get a World Cup place.
“The plan is to bring back players from overseas, but if they do, players like Vincent Koch (below) and Faf de Klerk will have to settle back into the South African way. Unfortunately, Erasmus does not have time on his side, so we are on the back foot – but there is an unbelievable talent pool in South Africa.”
Brits also has first hand knowledge of England’s talent pool having played alongside Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell at Saracens, and says their presence would make England favourites.
He identifies No.8 Vunipola, who returns to the Saracens bench against London Irish today after recovering from a broken arm, as being world-class – and indispensable to their World Cup plans.
“The thing with Billy is that he gives you momentum, and he stops the other side’s momentum. If he plays he automatically gives your loose forwards an edge. He is a special player, a world-class player, and when he is not playing – just like when Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were not playing for New Zealand, or Fourie du Preez for South Africa – the team is not the same. Billy is a unique physical specimen, and he is getting fitter, stronger, quicker and smarter. It is scary how good he could be.”
Brits believes Farrell is one of those players who thrives on big challenges and can step in to captain England with Dylan Hartley ruled out of the tour. “Owen is a natural leader, so it’s not hard for him. Though Brad Barritt leads on the pitch for Saracens, Owen calls the plays. So, he takes charge, and you know that with Owen it’s a case of the more responsibility the better.”
However, Brits is a Springbok to his bootlaces, and after their Six Nations collapse he cannot resist setting England up to be knocked down again: “England went through a purple patch, and it’s a question of recalibrating. England are the favourites, with blokes who’ve played together as a team for longer, and South Africa the underdogs. I hope South Africa win. I won’t entertain England winning – even if my head tells me England, my heart says South Africa!”
Objectivity is restored when he considers whether England or South Africa are genuine contenders to win the 2019 World Cup – and it is here that he is at his most candid about England’s fatigue handicap.
“Currently Ireland, England and New Zealand are well placed, whereas for South Africa it’s a bit late – although they could surprise us.
“Ireland are based on a Leinster side that are by far the best province in the world, Joe Schmidt is an unbelievably good coach – very smart – so they are strong despite not having a good World Cup record. When you look at New Zealand, skills-wise they are so impressive, and are just a great rugby nation.
“For England, the Premiership puts such a big demand on the international players, and since the Lions tour it has been ridiculous. England players don’t get enough rest, and although they need to play regularly in the season building up to a World Cup, it cannot be too much.”
Brits has loved his time in the Premiership but he believes that improvements could be made which would benefit club and country: “Why must clubs lose their best players for a third of the season, and watch them get a beating from playing so much? I’d like to see the club season played in blocks, with the Premiership first and then Europe, but they need to look at it as a global season. There is too much rugby, and I think that fewer games but of more quality is the answer.”
Brits believes that the game needs to find new, innovative solutions in the same way Saracens have during his time at the club.
“I know there have been a lot of South Africans here, but it was more about the Saracens culture that developed. It was about coming to a place where people try to find the best in you. In my experience there are two ways of managing players. One is the ‘be mean to keep them keen’ approach where people play emotional games and use uncertainty to keep players sharp. The other is by using integrity and honesty, which isn’t as easy. That is what Saracens have done by using a rotation system where you make a commitment to a player by telling him when he will be playing, and you stick to it – even if you lose. It builds trust.
“The Saracens culture has never been built on trophies. It’s been more process-based than outcome-based. It’s been built on a great work ethic, growth, and looking after the individual.”
Brits thoughts as he reflects on his passage through the Premiership after he joined Saracens from the Stormers are full of affection.
“Coming from Super Rugby I was shocked by the competitiveness. I thought it would be a lot slower, but it was anything but – it is very competitive, fast, and also a long old slog too, with the Premiership and the European Cup.
“You are also playing in totally different conditions, starting off with reasonable weather from September to November, then getting wetter and heavier from December to March, and then another change to drier conditions at the end of the season.
“On a personal level I have made so many friends, obviously among team-mates, but opposition players as well. It’s an amazing game, and I love its values.
“The supporters are also amazing. Who still goes and watches rugby in snow, rain, and freezing temperatures? Fair play to them – I come from a country where it’s hot, and we are struggling to fill stadiums.
“It was also an eye-opener coming to a place where there’s rugby with lots of scrums, kicking and mauling, and people love it! It’s been great playing in this competition, I just wish it was not quite so tough.”
What will be tougher still is having to say farewell at the end of this season to Schalk Brits, the Saracens Superman.
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