Steven Kitshoff believes playing in France will benefit his game, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
There was a palpable sense of shock in February 2015 when Steven Kitshoff announced he was leaving South Africa to join Bordeaux on a two-year deal.
The news broke the day before the flame-haired loosehead turned 23, underlining the fact here was a player not yet in his peak years who had decided to continue his rugby education overseas.
When SA Rugby magazine catches up with Kitshoff a little over 12 months on, he explains why he left when he did.
‘I spent five years playing Super Rugby and I was looking for a change. Getting a nice opportunity in France, to experience another rugby culture, was the main factor. I don’t regret anything and I’m very glad I came here.’
Five years! It’s easy to forget that Kitshoff was only 18 when he was drafted into the Stormers, who had to first get permission from his parents (and World Rugby), that they were happy for him to make the transition from Paul Roos Gymnasium to Super Rugby.
There were some sceptics who didn’t believe a ‘boy’ could survive in the front row at that level, but one man who never doubted Kitshoff was Frans van Niekerk, director of rugby at Paul Roos.
‘He has the physical attributes and the emotional maturity to play Super Rugby,’ he said in 2011. ‘He’s one of the strongest boys I’ve ever worked with.’
Kitshoff made his Stormers debut in round 13 of that season’s Super Rugby, against the Chiefs in Hamilton, and to nobody’s great surprise he was subsequently a member of the Junior Boks side that won the U20 World Championship in 2012.
By the start of 2015 Kitshoff was a Super Rugby veteran, with over 50 appearances for the Stormers, not to mention a few battle scars as befits a front-row forward. The most serious was a knee injury in May 2014, which sidelined him for the rest of the year, but when he returned, the then Stormers forwards coach Matthew Proudfoot saw a change.
‘He’s improved his bind and changed his angle on attack on the tighthead in scrums,’ he explained to the Sunday Times. ‘He scrums slightly up and in, which puts pressure on the tighthead. That is also down to his improved flexibility and now he is accurate and dominant.’
Kitshoff was in line to play for the Springboks against a World XV in July last year but another knee injury ruled him out of contention and ended his hopes of making the World Cup squad.
The acid test for any prop forward is France, a nation that, despite its problems at international level, is the toughest environment imaginable for scrummaging. There are some seriously big beasts in the Top 14, giant Georgians, ferocious Frenchmen, titanic Tongans and a fair few strapping South Africans. So when the 120kg Kitshoff signed for Bordeaux, he knew his new technique would be challenged. It has, and he’s revelling in the experience.
‘The Top 14 is tougher in the scrum department,’ he says. ‘The work we do in the week is more intense than I was used to back home and in general the scrummaging is harder and I’m learning more.’
Kitshoff came to France well prepared, having first sounded out Pieter de Villiers, the Springbok scrum coach who was capped 69 times by Les Bleus between 1999 and 2007.
‘I had some long discussions with Pieter before I made the decision to move to France,’ says Kitshoff. ‘I took his advice into consideration and I spoke to my family. It was a really tough call for me. Living in Cape Town I was close to friends and family. Moving across the world was a big undertaking but I’m happy with how it’s worked out.’
Last year Proudfoot described Kitshoff as a man who ‘displayed a high emotional intelligence’, which is another reason he’s adapted well to life in France. It helps, of course, that he’s in Bordeaux, the sixth biggest city in France, but perhaps the most sophisticated after Paris. The club is a reflection of that refinement and in head coach Raphaël Ibañez and defence coach Joe Worsley, Bordeaux have two of French rugby’s most intelligent and innovative coaches.
‘They are great coaches and I’m learning a lot from both,’ says Kitshoff, who adds that Worsley – a World Cup winner with England in 2003 – helps translate coaching instructions into English. ‘There are also some senior players, like Jan Marais and Frankie [Argentina international prop Francisco Gómez Kodela], who have been playing Top 14 rugby for a while, and I’m listening and learning from them too.’
The club is an ambitious one, as seen by the signing this season of Adam Ashley-Cooper, Australian prop Sekope Kepu and Ireland flyhalf Ian Madigan, and Kitshoff says there is a growing belief within Bordeaux.
‘We’re striving to be the best and we want to do better in the Top 14 and climb the rankings. We’re working on adopting a winning culture and the input from guys like Adam and Kepu has been an important part of that.’
As for Kitshoff’s international ambitions, they’re burning as brightly as ever in Bordeaux.
‘My goal is to play international rugby at the top level and I think playing in France will help me achieve that,’ he says. ‘It would be lovely to one day play for the Boks, should they need me.’
– This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine