‘I’ve not played enough Tests’
- 03 Apr 2018
Vincent Koch remains committed to Saracens, but wants to play for the Springboks again, writes MARTIN GILLINGHAM.
So, which is it? Vincent, Vince or Vinny?
‘It’s Vince in South Africa, but they call me Vinny at Saracens,’ Koch says. ‘Names don’t worry me too much, to be honest. I’m just glad they don’t refer to me by my surname because, when they do, they really do get it wrong.’
Thirty seconds into the interview and Vince, or Vinny, is already cracking jokes and making his interlocutor smile. Now, that may not be an opponent’s spontaneous reaction when the meticulously coiffed blond mane comes, ball tucked under the arm, trundling in his direction on a rugby field. In that guise Koch does a passable impersonation of a cow running downhill. Off the pitch, though, the Saracens tighthead is a delight. He’s witty, articulate and self-deprecating.
The only time his guard comes up during our conversation is when asked about Rassie Erasmus’ scouting trip to Europe, when prominent Boks – some of whom, like Koch, are unavailable to him because of the 30-cap rule – were ‘spoken to’ by the new boss.
Understandably, Koch is keen to observe confidentiality. Problem is, there aren’t that many secrets left in South African rugby. And leaks back at home mean that meetings half a world away in a European winter soon become badly-kept secrets.
Back in February, Koch was on a list of Erasmus targets, which also included Duane Vermeulen, Frans Steyn, Jan Serfontein, JP Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis, Faf de Klerk, Willie le Roux and Juan de Jongh.
‘We briefly discussed a few things,’ Koch says. ‘It wasn’t a formal meeting, just a quick chat. The question was, “Are you still keen to play in the green and gold?” What Rassie is looking for is 23 people who are hungry to play for South Africa.’
So, what about Vinny?
‘Sure, I’m 100% in for that. I’ve not played enough Tests. It would be an honour. Believe me, it’s tough for us watching from here when things are not going well.’
Koch has played just nine times for the Boks, having had a sequence of starts in the 2016 Rugby Championship and that November tour. His most recent experience in a Springbok jersey was in Florence when he was replaced 52 minutes into the Italy Test. At the time South Africa were leading 15-10. Twenty-eight minutes later the Azzurri were celebrating their first win against the Boks. The final score was 20-18.
Does that mean Koch feels there is unfinished business?
‘Exactly. You don’t want that to be your last Test.’
Koch received a salutary reminder of the precarious nature of his chosen profession within hours of having met Erasmus. As SA Rugby’s new supremo was settling himself in at Twickenham before the England vs Wales Six Nations game, Koch was hobbling off the synthetic surface at Saracens’ Allianz Park home, having ruptured an ankle ligament just 33 seconds into a league clash with Newcastle.
‘I’m gutted about the injury,’ he admits. ‘I’ve had an operation and it means I’m out for 12 weeks. I’d never wish things like this on my worst enemy.
‘I’m going to have to take it really slowly, but I still want to play a few games before the end of the season.’
It’s meant a bit more time lying on the sofa – ‘I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics on the TV for the first time’ – while his wife, Jandré, has come back to England a bit earlier than planned to keep the patient company. Jandré is studying to be a teacher and when the injury happened she was in Durban for a practical part of her course.
Home in England is Harpenden, which is a stunning, and very expensive, commuter town half an hour north of London and a 10-minute drive from Saracens’ training base.
The Kochs’ landlord is Schalk Brits who, by all accounts, has become a veritable property baron. The teammates have more in common than you might think. They’re more than just former Stormers who happened to be born in Empangeni. Koch says: ‘Our parents were over here at Christmas and it turns out his mom and my dad were at school together in Vanrhynsdorp.’
Koch has had three seasons in England. Another ‘fact’ that he is keen to lay to rest, is one about a mid-year move to Loftus.
‘There have been a few rumours about the Bulls, but that’s not going to happen. There is no reason I want to leave Saracens. When I came here I sat with the coaching staff and we discussed my goals and what I must change. The biggest thing is the scrum. That’s why I came north.’
Koch’s early career was spent on the loosehead side of the front row. It was only after he’d gone on loan from the Bulls to the Pumas that coach Jimmy Stonehouse, faced with an injury crisis on the tighthead side, asked Koch if he’d fancy helping out by switching positions. It’s proved to be a seminal moment in his career.
‘I’ve certainly grown as a player by coming to the northern hemisphere. I get tested in the Premiership and then more so in the Champions Cup. I’ve become a better scrummager as a result. That’s what I’m really working on.’
The ‘new’ Saracens haven’t always been the most loved club in England. First it was parochial stuff and a resentment of the South African influence; then the team’s dull if effective tactical approach; now it’s more down to resentment of their success. Koch’s popularity, though, transcends tribal gulfs. And no incident illustrated this better than when he had his jersey pulled over his head in the Champions Cup tie at Clermont Auvergne in December (see sidebar below).
Koch’s low-maintenance reputation goes down well at a club that makes much of its team ethos. Director of rugby Mark McCall is the most significant decision-maker in Koch’s rugby life.
‘There is night and day between what his contributions used to be and what they are now,’ McCall says. ‘His work off the ball is exceptional. He’s become a real asset, a great player. Vinny is as good a tighthead, with and off the ball, as there is.’
Vincent Koch did not stop playing when his jersey was pulled over his head by a Clermont opponent during Saracens’ European Champions Cup match last December. Instead of pausing to put it back on, he ripped it off.
‘The important thing was to be in the moment for my teammates and not be concerned about my pale white skin being exposed to everyone, or even to worry about the stick and banter I was going to get afterwards,’ he says.
‘To be honest, it is a prop’s worst nightmare to have your shirt pulled off and body exposed when the game is being televised. I couldn’t let my team down, though.
‘Social media got stuck into me. The Baywatch tune is out there. It’s been a good laugh. A tanning studio ought to help sponsor me, perhaps. Maybe I should get some spray tan. I was so glad when the play stopped. I was a bit sheepish.’
– This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale 23 April.
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