Scrum-half Neil de Kock returns to South Africa later this summer after 11 years in England, safe in the knowledge that he has helped create a Saracens dynasty. He tells NEALE HARVEY of his future plans and explains why his legacy is in good hands.
After a lifetime playing elite level rugby, have you come to terms with the fact that, at 38, it’s all over?
I have. Last season was a bit of a transition year when I didn’t play as much as I had before. I was kind of half in, half out, which was frustrating at times having to take a step back, but in hindsight it helped me prepare for this enormous change. I didn’t go from all to nothing and I had the chance to deal with the fact it was all going to stop – a softer landing if you like. I’ve played for two clubs I have a lot of love for in Cape Town Stormers and Saracens and have no issues with moving on.
Are you planning to cut the umbilical cord with rugby altogether?
I hope not. I’ll stay in the game in some capacity, whether it be at school or academy level. In the first instance, though, I’ll base myself in Stellenbosch from September and do an internship for Remgro, an investment group in South Africa. I’ll bounce around a couple of companies in their group, one of them being sport related and the other in the business world. Hopefully, in six months or so I’ll have a better idea of where my long-term future lies.
Presumably Saracens, with their close business ties in South Africa, have been instrumental in putting that future career path in place?
Yes. It’s part of the personal development programme that Saracens have worked on for many years, with guys encouraged to spend some time in the City. It’s a club that really cares and that’s brilliant because it’s easy to send someone on their way and say ‘good luck’ without any real concern for their future. But a strength of Saracens is that whether you’ve been at the club a long time or not, they go out of their way to prepare guys for life after rugby.
You hear many horror stories about players just being cut adrift by clubs and suffering health repercussions as a result. Do Saracens generally get things right?
You can always do things better but as a club Saracens are definitely aware of the mental health issues. There are a lot of individuals who do struggle and it comes with the territory. Rugby’s a big, macho game played by supposedly tough individuals who don’t have any problems in the world, so to get guys suffering from mental health problems to speak out is a challenge. We all face highs and lows and now I’m starting something new after 19 years, it’s a daunting prospect. When your whole identity has been formed with what you’ve done over a long playing career I don’t really know how things will work out, but I’m as well prepared as I can be, I think.
Saracens missed out on the Premiership title last season, but you must be delighted to be bowing out as a double European Cup winner and three-time league champion?
It’s really great. The titles and trophies are brilliant but it’s about much more than that. It’s about the characters that you spend so much time training and playing with and the people you meet in the game. To have these opportunities to play on the biggest stages against the best teams and players in Europe is a huge motivator for doing what I’ve done, but having been part of a club like Saracens there are so many more memories than that. The regular trips abroad were unique and you develop bonds and friendships that are very hard to replicate.
What’s the difference between the Saracens you leave and the club you joined in 2006?
Between 2006 and 2009 it was a club that was incredibly inconsistent – a club that had no real identity. Our sole purpose was to win games and that was it. Then Brendan Venter and Edward Griffiths arrived and set two goals: to create a family and make memories. Those goals were so subjective and random that guys like myself, who’d played for a while at a high level, were really sceptical. But those were the goals and it was about focussing on them. We soon realised that if we did that and really looked after each other, the results would look after themselves. Brendan and Edward got a large majority of the group to buy into that and it laid the foundation of where Saracens is today. Of course we’ve got good players and coaches, but it’s still a club that cares and is driven to maximise that performance by going about things in a slightly off-beat manner.
Does it bug you and other players that Saracens’ achievements have maybe not earned the respect they deserve because of perceived arrogance or implications around the salary cap?
It’s fair to say that any club that’s been successful in the past has been targeted and are pretty unpopular. Leicester were unpopular for many years, as were Wasps, so any team that plays well and wins a couple of trophies has to deal with it. It’s obviously difficult for me to say what other clubs and cultures are like but I believe that Saracens do endeavour to remain humble and grounded and go out to win games like any other club. Our greatest core value is humility because the minute you think you’re too good or that you’ve made it is when you fall short. Yes, we’ve been pretty unpopular at times but we’ve had the self-belief to get through it and the players we have now will ensure Saracens continue to throw their hats in the ring for success.
Among those players are a bunch of buoyant Lions stars. What did you make of your club’s contribution to the recent drawn series in New Zealand?
Our Saracens boys performed fantastically well and to draw a Test series in New Zealand is no mean feat. A lot of these guys were asked to put in a lot of hard yards prior to heading Down Under but it is a mark of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Jamie George, George Kruis and Mako Vunipola that they rose to it and excelled. The great thing for Saracens is that they’ll be desperate to get back to the club and get stuck in again. Some players want to take a break from club rugby but to a man our guys will front up and want to put the Saracens shirt straight back on again.
Given Alex Lozowski, Nick Isiekwe and Nathan Earle toured Argentina with England and that you had six guys involved with the U20s, how bright does the future look for Sarries?
There are no guarantees but preparation is key and it’s an incredible job our coaching staff, led by Mark McCall, have done. They’re not just thinking about next week but looking to next year or three or four years down the line. They’ve earmarked and developed those players from an early age and to have someone like Nick Isiekwe, at 19, playing under George Kruis, Will Skelton and Maro Itoje next season is fantastic. If Nick’s willing to bide his time and learn, he’ll get opportunities, as will a guy like Max Malins. The list goes on and I’m very excited to see what Saracens do in future.
There’s a lot being said about Maro Itoje becoming England captain right now, but is it too soon?
People were saying the same 18 months ago when Maro got into the England team. They said he was too young and might not be ready, but the minute he got his opportunity… he was more than ready! At 22, I can see why people might want to hold him back and look after him, I can appreciate that. But if the kid keeps performing like he is it’s difficult to hold him back. Maro’s a superstar now and he’s got a ridiculous track record of winning matches he plays in, so he’ll be England’s captain at some stage. Who’s to say Eddie Jones wants to make a change, though? Dylan Hartley’s won 20 of 21 games as captain so I don’t see any reason for that at the moment, but Maro is definitely a prime candidate to succeed him when that time arrives because he just rises to every challenge.
One man probably happy to see the back of you is Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer. Has this guy now got a genuine chance with England?
No doubt. I’ve always been a big fan of Ben. He’s a phenomenal athlete and it comes down to opportunity now. He didn’t get as much rugby as he’d have liked last season and that was frustrating, but he’s ready now and he just needs an opportunity to prove to the England coaches that he can play at that level. Ben didn’t go to Argentina and England are ridiculously well stocked at scrum-half, which is a bit of a problem for Eddie Jones and Ben, but he’s definitely got the character and ability to put himself in the frame for the 2019 World Cup. I’d hope to see him on that big stage next season.
The landscape of South African rugby is very different to the one you left in 2006. What’s your assessment of the current situation there?
I was delighted to see South Africa turn the corner last month with a fantastic 3-0 series win over a pretty good French side. South Africa is having to compete with the major rugby markets of England, France and Japan now so you’ve got the huge issue of player drain and coaching drain which has been hindering our national team. But with Brendan Venter working alongside Allister Coetzee now, they’ll create a competitive team that makes life difficult for the opposition. It’s a very young squad led by Warren Whiteley, who’s obviously an outstanding leader, so it’s exciting to see South Africa are getting back on track. It might be too much to expect South Africa to beat New Zealand, but if they can start beating Australia and Argentina on a consistent basis in the Rugby Championship they can build nicely towards the World Cup. That will be the target right now.
How do you view the prospect of the Cheetahs and Kings joining the PRO12?
It’ll be great for them and could spark a major change in competitions in future. Personally, I think it makes sense for South Africa to be involved in Europe, whether it be the PRO12, Premiership or another European competition. The South African teams who’ve been kept in Super Rugby will probably be feeling quite jealous now. If it goes ahead I’ll be excited to see how it works out and if I were a young player in South Africa, I’d try and sign for the Cheetahs or Kings straight away. It’s a fantastic chance to further their careers and those of the coaches, too.
On the subject of coaching drain, how do you think Johan Ackerman will fare as head coach at Gloucester?
I think he’ll do an outstanding job. I played with Johan at the back end of his playing career and what a wonderful guy. He’s such a grounded human being and a real grafter, so I’m sure he’s carried those things through into his coaching career and he’s been outstanding for the Lions. It’s a shame once again that he’s leaving South Africa and that highlights the challenge we face as a rugby nation, but he’ll do well in the Premiership and Gloucester have recruited well.
You were once part of that player drain from South Africa. Do you ever regret missing out on the possibility of winning more Springboks caps?
None. I gave it a really good go when I was with the Stormers but at the time it was a Springboks squad that was very settled and building towards winning the 2007 World Cup. Fourie du Preez was one of the best No.9s in the world so to oust a guy like that was always going to be a huge challenge. Had I stayed on at the Stormers things might have turned out differently but I can genuinely say I have no regrets. I represented the Springboks ten times and there was no higher honour that one could achieve. I came to Saracens not really knowing what to expect but the last 11 years has been fantastic, whether I was playing international rugby or not. It’s been a phenomenal career.
It must give you a lot of satisfaction leaving England knowing you’ll be acknowledged as one of the best overseas Premiership signings of all time… up there alongside guys like Nick Evans, Michael Lynagh and Inga Tuigamala?
Crikey, it’s kind of you to say so. I’d never considered myself in that way and I’m sure there’ve been many far greater overseas signings over the years, but it’s wonderful to be even mentioned in the same category as guys like that. I’ve loved contributing to a club like Saracens. You forge relationships and when you see guys like Jamie George, Owen Farrell and George Kruis, who were 18 and coming out of school when I was at my peak and are now playing for the British & Irish Lions, it makes me proud to have been part of their growth, however small a part that was. I only ever planned to come to England for a couple of years but staying on was one of the best decisions I ever made. I can’t say enough good things about Saracens and it’s been a fantastic ride.