Schalk Brits could have a key role to play for the Springboks as a player and leader in the buildup to the 2019 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
You can’t have a team that’s full of youngsters and you can’t have a team that’s full of old okes,’ Schalk Brits tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘You have to strike the right balance. At the same time, you’ve got to have the right culture in place and the right amount of technical expertise across the board.’
Brits is well placed to comment on culture and success, having won 222 caps, two European Cups and four English Premiership titles during his nine-year stint with Saracens. A man of his experience could certainly add value to the Springboks in the lead-up to their 2019 World Cup campaign.
Over the course of the interview, Brits speaks about a range of issues like a coach with an intimate knowledge of the game. He explains why he has come out of retirement to join the Boks and why he’s moved back to South Africa with his wife and three sons ahead of his final season in 2019.
Rassie Erasmus came in for some criticism when he brought the 37-year-old hooker into the Bok fold before the second Test against England in June. There was an outcry in late-October when Brits was included in the squad ahead of Akker van der Merwe – the Man of the Match in the Currie Cup final.
What is Brits’ role in the Springbok set-up? Will he actually play if he’s selected in the World Cup squad, or will he travel to the tournament as a mentor? These are just some of the questions that were asked in the wake of the squad announcement for the end-of- year tour.
Brits takes a deep breath before addressing these questions. His response is unexpected.
‘When you’re a kid, you think you deserve to play for the Boks,’ he begins. ‘You believe that if you work hard for a certain amount of time, you should receive a reward. That’s how you view success. But that’s not how it works in a team sport.
‘I’ve learned you have to give absolutely everything, especially after the setbacks,’ he continues. ‘I have to keep working and improving myself, whether I make the team or not.
‘People might hear you talking like that and then accuse you of not caring. The opposite is true, though; now more than ever. It’s hard for me to see Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi getting picked every week, because I’m a competitive guy. Deep down, I really want to wear that Springbok jersey.’
What Brits says next speaks to the new culture that’s taken root at the Boks in 2018.
‘I make a point of congratulating those guys on their selection when the side is announced. I wish them luck and ask if there is anything I can help with, and I mean it when I say it. What I’ve learned over time is that the team comes first and sometimes you have to sacrifice for the good of the team. As a young kid, all I wanted to do was wear that Bok jersey. I wasn’t as good a team man as I could have been.’
Former Bok captain John Smit joined Saracens after the 2011 World Cup. It didn’t take long for Smit to establish himself in the leadership core and to bolster the team culture. One story told by Smit left an impression on Brits.
A player once came to Smit and asked, ‘How can they not select me when I’ve made the most tackles, made the most carries and made the most metres?’ Smit replied that the question was flawed. The focus was on ‘me’ instead of the team.
‘Rugby is not an individual sport,’ says Brits. ‘How many times have we seen a less-fancied team beating a group stacked with superstars? The whole has to be greater than the sum of its parts. That’s the biggest lesson I learned while playing at Saracens. We didn’t always have the greatest team on paper, but we fought for one another. We’ve tried to instil that at the Boks this year.’
Brits remembers the brutal live scrumming session that took place in the lead-up to the second Test against England in Bloemfontein.
‘We were really stuffing each other up. When the whistle went at the end, though, we came together to talk about what had worked and what hadn’t. When you exchange or transfer intellectual capital in that manner, you strengthen the squad. It’s not about keeping everything to yourself just because you want to have an edge over younger players competing for the same position. There are technical aspects of the game that you won’t learn unless you have played for a long time. Being part of different rugby set-ups and taking part in competitions overseas can also give you a different perspective.
‘I’m not there to tell players what to do, though,’ he says. ‘I want them to realise their own potential. I believe that diversity in a team is a strength. We need different players like Handré Pollard, Willie le Roux, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx and so on. The key to a successful side, and indeed any business, is how you manage to incorporate all those differences to make a strong product.
‘I chatted to Rassie about the challenges. How do you get players to take ownership in a set-up like that? My experience of South African rugby is that the players are spoon-fed. What will happen when they start thinking for themselves, and when they start coaching each other and embracing the long-term vision? You will get a better product. I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen thus far in this respect.’
Brits concedes that he would not have developed such a holistic approach to the game if he had remained in South Africa. The hooker left the Stormers in 2009 with the hope of resurrecting his career in England. What he found at Saracens was life-changing.
‘There have always been many perceptions about me,’ he says with a grimace. ‘When I started at Western Province, there was a coach who told me that I was too small to play in the front row. I had a bit of success for the Cats and then the Stormers. When it got out that I was going to England, a lot of people said I wouldn’t make it over there, as Super Rugby suited my style of play.
‘I learned so much when I was overseas, though. I played alongside guys from Wales, Argentina and Italy and they taught me so much. I remember my first scrum against London Irish. The opposition fed the ball and then kept it in the scrum for ages. I was under so much pressure in the middle that I felt like I was going to faint. I had to adapt.
‘Everything I learned at Saracens changed the way I lived my life and it influenced the way I raise my kids. As sportsmen, we think winning is everything, when the truth is work ethic is everything.’
Brits reveals that the book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed was another source of inspiration.
‘Matthew explores the reaction to failure. For example, if one of my sons drops a glass on the floor and it breaks, should I have a go at him for his mistake? Should I tell him never to carry a glass again or should I explain what happens to a glass when it falls. That kind of sums up the Saracens’ way of thinking.
‘A lot of coaches treat you mean to keep you keen. It’s not an approach that helps or motivates a player in the long run. Saracens, however, told me they were going to treat me unbelievably well on condition that I tried unbelievably hard. So there was a sense of trust and it was up to me to fulfil my end of the bargain. If I didn’t get up off the floor and to the next ruck, they would come down on me for that. If I made a bad pass or missed a tackle, that is a skill error, and they as coaches are responsible for improving my skills. “Let’s work together and make you a better player, Scalla” was their attitude. I wish I had that kind of input as a young kid.’
As if on cue, Brits’ oldest son Hunter runs across to where we are sitting and climbs on to his father’s lap. We’re talking about Brits’ wife and kids, and the sacrifices they’ve had to make for the sake of his long – and successful – rugby career.
‘My wife Colinda deserves a lot of the credit,’ he says. ‘She’s allowed me to pursue my dream despite the fact we have three kids and she had a full-time job as a solicitor in London. Saracens created an environment that I actually didn’t want to leave. Having doctors and physios who could keep me fit played a part, of course. To be in the condition I am at 37 … I never believed it would be possible. Again, that is a credit to the management.
‘I know South African rugby is different,’ he adds. ‘Maybe a change is needed. Guys are playing week in and week out. How do we see those guys as more than just a commodity? How can we treat those assets in such a way that will benefit the team in the long term? If you are paying one of the elite Boks a lot of money, you have to ensure he is in peak physical condition. You don’t overplay him to the point where it will compromise his performance.’
Brits, who has been working part time in the finance sector for the past six years, has a lot to look forward to when he eventually hangs up his boots in late-2019.
‘I had planned to do an executive MBA at Cambridge before I got the call from Rassie,’ he says. ‘I was looking forward to it. Not many people get that opportunity and I’m sure the experience would have pushed me to think differently. Everybody sees a problem, but the best and most successful people come up with solutions.
‘After the series against England, I had a chat with Rassie and decided to postpone those plans. Cambridge told me I could reapply after the 2019 World Cup. I sat down with Johann Rupert to discuss my job at Reinet Investments. He told me he can never say he has worn the Bok jersey; I have the opportunity to do that and I should embrace it.
‘I don’t want to have any regrets. I don’t want my boys to ask me in 10 years’ time why I didn’t take that opportunity. So I’m pushing hard to remain a part of the Bok side and to go to the World Cup.’
ANSWERING RASSIE’S CALL – HOW BRITS JOINED THE BOKS
Schalk Brits was sitting on a beach in Ibiza when he received a text from someone claiming to be Rassie Erasmus. That someone wanted Brits to report for Springbok duty ahead of the second Test against England in Bloemfontein.
Brits cringes as he retells the story.
‘I didn’t have Rassie’s number,’ the Bok hooker says with a laugh. ‘I thought someone was taking the piss, so I replied that I was in great condition… bigger, stronger and prettier than I had ever been. Ridiculous stuff, for sure, but I thought I was speaking to one of my mates.
‘My wife told me to be careful. How did I know that it wasn’t Rassie? I told her it couldn’t be. I had just retired. It had to be a joke.
‘But what she said got me thinking. I called [Saracens teammate] Vincent Koch, who is always taking the mickey out of me. When Vincent confirmed that it wasn’t him, I started to panic. I got hold of Rassie eventually, and I felt a bit sheepish.
‘We didn’t make the decision right away, though. We had a trial of sorts across the last two Tests against England. I was free considering my work at Reinet Investments was only due to start in August and my studies at Cambridge in September. There was a window for me to see what was happening, and for Rassie to see whether I could add value.
‘After the England series, I told Rassie that I liked the direction the Boks were heading in. I felt I could add value. There was no point in me coming back to South Africa for two years and putting my other plans on hold if I couldn’t do that.’
– This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.