Saracens prop Vincent Koch has returned to the Boks as a much-improved player, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Koch sits at the departures lounge of OR Tambo International Airport. He can barely contain his excitement.
Just 24 hours after featuring for English club Saracens in a Premiership game, he’s flown virtually straight to Johannesburg, where he touches base with SA Rugby magazine before boarding a flight to link up with the Springboks in Port Elizabeth. That evening, Koch is still all smiles as he heads out to have a catch- up with teammate Willie le Roux.
For the powerful prop, it has been a whirlwind period since earning a somewhat surprise call-up to the Bok squad for the final two Rugby Championship Tests.
‘To get this call-up now is just an amazing feeling because it feels like all my hard work has paid off,’ he says. ‘I spoke to [Bok coach] Rassie Erasmus before the June Tests, and we had a good discussion about my eagerness and availability to play for the Boks. So I always knew where I stood with Rassie and that I was in his plans, but I wasn’t exactly too sure when the opportunity might come.
‘Unfortunately injuries kept me out of the June series, but that’s all behind me, and it was good to have a played a few games with Sarries to regain some fitness before joining the Boks. There were a lot of emotions, for sure, and it was quite unexpected to be included in the squad for the last couple of games [of the Rugby Championship].’
By all accounts, Koch is in great shape, physically and mentally. Two serious injuries (ankle and bicep) are in the past, with the 28-year-old completing pre-season at Saracens, and featuring in five English Premiership games before the Boks came calling.
Earlier this year, Koch signed a contract extension that will see him remain with Saracens until 2022. It’s a career move that the former Pumas and Stormers tighthead believes will allow him to continue honing his craft.
‘I’m really happy at the moment, the club has done a lot for me. The move to Koch won the 2016-17 European Champions Cup with Saracens the UK has improved me as a player; we play against the world’s best week in and week out. Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned at Saracens is the importance of having a massive work rate.
‘Sometimes you think you’re doing enough, but my time at Sarries has taught me there is always that bit extra in you, and so it’s about moving around and looking for work off the ball. Mentally too. The move has helped mature me as a player, especially as a tighthead where you are scrumming against some top-class opponents.’
It’s this insatiable work rate that was somewhat comically brought into the spotlight during a European Champions Cup match last year. Having had his jersey ripped over his head while defending a maul against Clermont, Koch didn’t bat an eyelid. Throwing his shirt to the ground, he got stuck straight back into action, including making a massive ‘topless’ tackle.
Erasmus, who is known to hold the Saracens star in high regard, says it is Koch’s all-round attributes that convinced him to integrate the burly front rower back into the Bok system sooner rather than later.
‘Vincent is one of those modern-day props who does his scrumming job well, but hell, he’s also really mobile around the park. He’s played some big matches; I coached against him when I was at Munster. There was one specific game I remember where he was the Man of the Match.
‘Guys coming from Europe also bring a different style of play and experience, and I think all the other young tightheads in the squad can feed off what he has learned overseas,’ adds Erasmus.
Indeed, it has been quite some time since the Boks could boast such depth at tighthead prop. Frans Malherbe has started consistently since the second Test against England in June, but powerful scrummager Wilco Louw continues to provide stern competition.
The experienced Coenie Oosthuizen made his return from injury during the Currie Cup, and while Thomas du Toit and Trevor Nyakane have predominantly begun to settle at tighthead, they also offer the value of a ‘swing’ prop who can feature on either side of the scrum.
Koch is fully aware that competition for the No 3 jersey has considerably increased during his near two-year absence from the Boks.
‘If you asked this question a year ago, there weren’t as many options at tighthead, but I think that is the position where there is suddenly the most competition. I realise it’s going to be tough to earn a spot in the World Cup squad, but hopefully there will be an X factor that stands out. For now, though, it’s just about finding that enjoyment factor and hopefully make some new memories in that green and gold jersey.’
To recap, Koch featured in nine Tests for the Boks between July 2015 and November 2016. The next year, SA Rugby announced its decision to enforce a 30-cap eligibility ruling for overseas-based players. Koch admits that he feared his international career could be over.
‘When I signed to play overseas, that 30- cap rule wasn’t in place. It was implemented soon after. It made me sad to know that I might not play for the Boks again. As South African guys, that is our biggest dream as rugby players. So at the time, it was like my dream had disappeared. It was an emotional period for me.’
The good news for Koch is that the changing of the guard at the helm of the Springboks also heralded a U-turn on the 30-cap ruling, and it didn’t take long for Erasmus to reach out to a player who had caught his eye during his brief coaching stint in the northern hemisphere.
For Koch, it’s on to the next chapter in his Test career. Before receiving the call-up from Erasmus, his last game in the green and gold came in the Springboks’ historic first loss to Italy. Koch is now more determined than ever to make the most of his fresh start.
‘I’m not a youngster any more, but hopefully I can bring a bit of seniority too. I’ve matured a lot since my last Bok game,’ he says. ‘The team is definitely still in a rebuilding phase, but I think we can all agree that since Rassie has arrived, there have been positive changes, starting with the series win over England.
‘Although it wasn’t exactly the ideal start to the Rugby Championship, there were still some good signs, especially that win over the All Blacks. I spoke to [veteran hooker] Schalk Brits and he said he just loves playing under Rassie again. I think the difference is like day and night since he has come back.
‘Now that I’m back with the Boks, hopefully I can add some energy and impart what I’ve learned over the past couple of years at Saracens. The biggest thing is to play for each other and make the people around us proud again.’
KOCH ON HIS COMEBACK TEST
‘Despite the result [the All Blacks clinched a last- minute 32-30 win], it was still an amazing feeling to be back on the park with the Boks, especially playing in front of a full Loftus. I had tears in my eyes when I sang the anthem and the atmosphere was just amazing. It was such a special occasion to make my return to Bok rugby.’
ERASMUS ON BOKS’ DEPTH AT TIGHTHEAD
‘We’re very lucky at this stage to have four or five really good tightheads available to look at ahead of the World Cup. We just wanted to take stock and have a look at Vincent too. He hasn’t been in the Bok environment with the things we are doing currently. All the players understand what we are trying to do in order to build the squad for the World Cup next year. Vincent is very similar to a guy like Thomas du Toit in terms of his mobility, but obviously just with a bit more experience on the tighthead side.’
– This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.