Rhode to the top
- 04 Aug 2017
Former Stormers forward Michael Rhodes won’t be eligible to play for England until November 2018, but he has already caught Eddie Jones’ eye. MARTIN GILLINGHAM reports.
The brevity of England coach Eddie Jones’ call to Michael Rhodes is greatly overshadowed by its significance.
‘It was a brief conversation,’ Rhodes says. ‘He told me he had noticed my play and that I should keep up the good work.’
Rhodes may not yet be eligible to play for England – and won’t be until Jones’ squad has returned from next year’s June tour to South Africa – but it is clear the 29-year-old has made an indelible impression on England’s head coach.
‘The call was a pleasant surprise, very flattering,’ Rhodes says.
His story is fast becoming familiar: that of a young South African who had grown up with the dream of playing for the Springboks, but whose career may lead him to playing against them.
If it does work out that way and Rhodes gets to pull on the white jersey with the red rose as early as November 2018, he will no doubt look back on a trip to England four years earlier as having been the turning point.
‘I had passed through London before, in transit, but that was my first proper visit,’ he says. ‘I was here with the Barbarians.’
It was a classic South African rugby player’s look-see. In his own words, Rhodes had already ‘put out some feelers’ with a view to taking up a contract in England or France. And it proved a successful visit. Rhodes impressed; firstly in his try-scoring performance in the Baa-Baas’ 50-point thrashing of Leicester, before turning out for a Western Province team against Saracens.
It was his first game on the Allianz Park plastic against the club for whom he was to become a regular, Player of the Season, English Premiership champion and European Champions Cup winner.
Not long after returning home from the UK, it became apparent he’d attracted the attention of someone with influence, and a deal to join Saracens was struck ahead of the 2015-16 season. Things were going well off the rugby field too. He married his long-term girlfriend, Cara, in a ceremony held on the Rhodes family farm in Mpumalanga on 18 July 2015.
A couple of days later, and with no time for a honeymoon, Rhodes headed off to pursue his new career.
‘When I came here, the possibility of playing for England wasn’t in my mind. I never considered England at all,’ he says.
‘I’d always hoped to play for the Boks, but it just didn’t happen. I have no massive resentment about never being selected. I would have loved to play for the Boks.We came here for a new lifestyle experience, something new. Obviously it has gone well. My wife and I are open to whatever happens in the future.’
That’s a familiar refrain among South African players who leave the country of their birth fully committed to return once their contracts have ended; only to find the longer they stay in Europe, the deeper the roots grow.
And that’s particularly easy to understand for those who settle at Saracens, the once self-styled awkward squad of English rugby that is now a club envied by all.
In 2010, Saracens turned their backs on a commitment to send their captain to the official launch of that season’s European Cup and instead dispatched him to Germany along with his squad for a team-bonding trip to Oktoberfest. The snub earned a reprimand as Sarries burnished their reputation as the continent’s mavericks.
Seven years on, this time as defending European champions, Saracens celebrated their semi-final win against Munster by heading off for 48 hours to the bars and beaches of Barcelona. This time it was reported as being the sort of left-field masterstroke that puts them a step ahead of the rest. Rhodes agrees it’s a vital ingredient.
‘First of all, they are a bunch of really good footballers,’ he says. ‘But the family aspect and the camaraderie also matters hugely. It’s that stuff that means we’re willing to put it all on the line for one another.
‘We see one another every day at training, but it’s trips like the one to Barcelona that enable us to establish true friendships. I can honestly say they bring us all closer together.’
Modest, unassuming and grounded are apt descriptions of a man whose game is underpinned by a relentless work ethic.
In a nine-month season, which ended for Saracens with defeat in the Premiership semi-final at Exeter on 20 May, Rhodes missed just one match. That was the home league win between the Champions Cup semi-final and final against relegated Bristol when he sat in the stands alongside Brad Barritt.
Barritt (Kearsney College, Sharks, Saracens and England) and Rhodes (Michaelhouse, Sharks, Lions, Stormers and Saracens) have much in common: professional rugby careers that saw them play Super Rugby at home, but then take their game to another level once they’d flown north. Rhodes credits the greater depth in Saracens’ squad, as opposed to those he was a member of in Durban and Cape Town, for allowing him longer rest periods.
‘In South Africa there was a greater drop in quality beneath the starting 23, which means there’s not so much rotation,’ he says.
Throw into the mix the staggering distances and time zones associated with Super Rugby and it’s easy to see how, despite its more physical reputation, the English Premiership and Saracens, in particular, has worked for Rhodes.
‘I’m a much better player for it,’ he says. ‘One-on-one coaching is better here than in South Africa, as is the attention to detail and the way they look after you in terms of injuries.’
Although Rhodes is among the generation of Sarries players to have emerged since Brendan Venter’s departure, it is the Springboks’ new assistant coach who established the club’s blueprint for success that includes ‘away days’ such as those to Munich and Barcelona. Venter’s legacy has been continued by current director of rugby Mark McCall, who has reaped the benefits.
The club, whose match-day home, Allianz Park, is built on the site of an old athletics stadium owned by Barnet council in north London, have won two Champions Cups and a Premiership title over the past two seasons. Barritt, marshal of the ‘wolfpack’ defence, and Rhodes, whose versatility has seen him play at lock and in the back row, have been central pillars of that success.
Rhodes was recently named Saracens’ Player of the Season and was also among six nominees for the prestigious Premiership Player of the Season award. His star is rising – and now we know for sure he’s also been noticed by the England coach.
There’s another full year to go before he qualifies to play for England. But after a season like this one, who would be brave enough to bet against this accidental Englishman making a Test debut in the first few months of his fourth decade?
– This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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