Part 2: Brits picked among the greatest athletes

In the latest SA Rugby magazine, we approached several experts to single out players they’d coached who were in a class of their own.

Former New Zealand coach Steve Hansen got his fellow coaches all nostalgic when he recently declared that league convert Sonny Bill Williams was the greatest athlete he had coached in a 24-year career which has taken in the sights of the Crusaders, Wales and the All Blacks, writes SIMNIKIWE XABANISA in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

READ: What’s in our latest issue?

Locals John Dobson, Nick Mallett, Brendan Venter and Paul Treu have also looked into the recesses of their minds for the one athlete who excited them above others in a working environment densely populated by athletes, and some couldn’t limit themselves to one …

Brendan Venter (Former Saracens director of rugby)

Years ago, when I was a young coach, I consulted on some defence sessions with the Cats, when Chester Williams was coaching them.

I came back from Joburg and I told my wife I’d seen a super talented kid. I told her he could literally do anything, that she should have seen him tackle, should have seen his hands … he was fast, had good feet and was really good at everything. That kid was Schalk Brits.

When I went to Saracens I asked if he’d be prepared to come with me and he is effectively the best signing ever in the English Premiership. Schalk is hands down the best rugby player-stroke-athlete I’ve ever coached. He’s strong, fast, agile, tough … you almost quantify an athlete by how fit they are, Schalk Brits was super fit.

It’s rare that someone that explosive is actually very fit too. The perfect athlete is someone who’s explosive, has brilliant feet, is fast and is also very fit. Schalk’s skill set is not only that he can step off both feet and pass off both hands, it’s also that he’s such a good technical tackler.

Schalk had strength too; he had to throw in the lineout, scrum in the scrum, tackle forwards and run like a back – it’s unfair to have someone that talented. He was such an amazing signing that the people who stayed there when I left got the same out of him. You get players like that, where coaches come and go, but you stay.

Paul Treu (Former Blitzboks coach)

The guys I’ll go with are Robert Ebersohn and Gio Aplon. With Rob I’d never seen anything like him in my career. The first time I saw him he was playing Craven Week and there I saw the qualities you look for as a sevens coach.

You look at the explosiveness of the player, his in-contact work like the ability to steal ball, getting on the ground and off it quickly … he was so strong in his core and leg drive, his ability to maintain his feet in contact, his passing, his reading of the defence and the game in general … whatever he did – on or off the ball – he was a step ahead of his age group.

What I’d never experienced was his professionalism when he came into our first meeting straight out of school. At the time we had a culture where the guys had to bring a notebook to the meeting, and when Robert attended for the first time not only did he have his book, he also had all our plays and every detail on what we were doing because he’d approached the senior players of his own initiative and asked them.

He just came in and set a different kind of standard in an environment where we put a premium on learning and accelerating learning. Gio was a game-breaker, and sometimes with game-breakers it tends to be in one aspect of their game, like attack. Gio was an all-rounder: besides the attacking abilities we all know, like his elusiveness and agility, he was also equally equipped in his defence.

So he had the holistic skills set of a unique player but his main attribute was ripping a defence to shreds. When we needed something to happen in tight games he was the guy who produced them. You just gave him the ball and he made something happen out of nothing, I still remember him stepping a sweeper after breaking the line and leaving him on his knees (laughs)

*This feature first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale! 

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Craig Lewis