Veteran scrumhalf Neil de Kock continues to excel for Saracens, writes PAUL MORGAN.
When Neil de Kock touched down in London from Cape Town in 2006, his focus was on no more than a two-year contract as the heir apparent to Kyran Bracken at Saracens. But eight years later and with more than 200 appearances to his name the scrumhalf, who made his name with Western Province and the Stormers, has become one of the most recognisable faces in the English Premiership.
When you think of the many headline-grabbing South Africans who have moved into English club rugby, De Kock may not be at the top of everyone’s list but one of the game’s quiet men is slowly moving into legendary status in north London.
And if you believe rugby union at the highest level is a young man’s game, you need to re-watch the first semi-final of this season’s European Cup as the 35-year-old De Kock zipped and sped around Twickenham as Saracens claimed a place in a European final for the first time.
All the headlines were rightly claimed by the defence, led by Jacques Burger, but De Kock showed the sort of form that won him 10 Springbok caps more than a decade ago and demonstrated why he is still regarded by the Saracens’ coaches as one of the fittest players at the club.
‘I never imagined I would still be here eight years after I left South Africa, but the truth is I have really enjoyed it,’ says De Kock. ‘Moving to Saracens was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I’m delighted to say I have another year left on my contract.
‘I really enjoyed my time in Cape Town, but I was looking for a change. I had a number of options before talking to Alan Gaffney and Richard Graham at Saracens and deciding to come to London to compete for a starting spot with Moses Rauluni and Alan Dickens, as Kyran Bracken had just retired.
‘I consider myself blessed that I can come to work every day with my mates, and from day one I saw Saracens as a club with massive potential.’
Some of De Kock’s incredible longevity can be attributed to Saracens’ rotational policy, which means he shares the halfback duties with former England player Richard Wigglesworth and rising star Ben Spencer.
The outside world often raises its eyebrows when told about a system that sees De Kock and Wigglesworth share the first-team duties, even for the biggest matches. Surely it goes against the very principles of competitive sport? Who is the No 1 scrumhalf at the club?
It would frustrate many players but it works at Saracens and De Kock is a fan of the way it has helped lengthen his career at the highest club level. In that recent European Cup semi-final when Saracens shocked the rugby world by beating Clermont Auvergne 46-6, De Kock started the match but almost as soon as the 50-minute mark was reached, on came Wigglesworth to help close out the best victory in the club’s history.
‘When Brendan Venter first suggested it a few years ago I was doubtful,’ De Kock admits, ‘but it really works for us. You want to play every game, of course you do, but we have this policy and we buy into it.
‘It is part of the policy at Saracens of putting the team first. It has worked out well and has probably contributed to me being able to play for so long. At Saracens the group always comes before the individual.’
The rotational policy, which even led to De Kock winning the toss of a coin to see who would start a Premiership final, is one of the many things that mark Saracens as a club that stands out from the rest on the English, or even world stage.
'I feel good physically, but I know I’ll only carry on until I can keep contributing to the team and helping to drive the club forward'
Saracens also have a big commitment to their local community, fully utilising their artificial surface at their new Allianz Park home in north London, something De Kock values.
‘All the players get involved in the community work here and the pitch is made available for groups to use every day,’ he says.
Families are also important at the club and with De Kock having children aged three and five, it helps him to be a better player if he knows his family are valued.
‘Saracens are one of the few clubs I know to have a creche at the training ground,’ says De Kock. ‘It means I can let my wife have a break and take my children to training on some days, and I can even go and visit the kids when there is time during sessions.
‘The combination of the new family and rugby does mean I have little time for anything else. I used to like to read but there’s no time for that with my family. It’s all systems go with them when I get home from training, doing the things young fathers do.’
De Kock’s happiness in north London recently saw him hit his double century in club matches, not something he would have thought was possible when he arrived.
‘Saracens have given me so much and I hope to return their faith by helping to deliver some silverware to the club. I never imagined I would play for them 200 times,’ he says. ‘But I’m still thoroughly enjoying my rugby; I love this club and that is why I’m still here.
‘The biggest change in those eight years has probably been the belief we have created, that we can play against anybody and perform. We don’t pick and choose games; we need to do it every time.
‘I am enjoying the role of passing on some of my experience but the younger players, like Owen Farrell and Alex Goode, are invigorating for me too. At Saracens, even with the coaches – some of whom I played with at the club – there isn’t a teacher and pupil relationship. We are all on the same level and havean input.
‘I haven’t set a time when I may end my career – I feel good physically, but I know I’ll only carry on until I can keep contributing to the team and helping to drive the club forward. The key thing is I still have a burning desire to play and I want to give back as much as I can.
‘This is a fantastic club to be at, right from our chief executive, Edward Griffiths, to the newest player in our academy.’
That philosophy is likely to keep De Kock young … at least for a few more years anyway.
HOME FROM HOME
The English Premiership is one of the most welcoming foreign leagues for South African rugby players who want to pursue their careers overseas.
De Kock is one of 19 SA-born players in the top flight of English rugby, three of whom (Matt Stevens, Brad Barritt and Mouritz Botha) have gone on to represent England at Test level, while Justin Melck has been selected by Germany.
Saracens have the most SA-born players with 11 of the 19, followed by three at Bath, although Nick Abendanon will be departing for Clermont Auvergne at the end of the season and Nick Koster has signed a permanent deal with second-division Bristol.
SA-BORN PLAYERS IN ENGLISH PREMIERSHIP
Nick Abendanon (Bath)
Brad Barritt (Saracens)
Mouritz Botha (Saracens)
Schalk Brits (Saracens)
Sebastian de Chaves (Leicester)
Neil de Kock (Saracens)
Petrus du Plessis (Saracens)
Nick Fenton-Wells (Saracens)
Dean Hammond (Worcester Warriors)
Alistair Hargreaves (Saracens)
Ashley Johnson (London Wasps)
Ernst Joubert (Saracens)
Nick Koster (Bath, loaned to Bristol)
Francois Louw (Bath)
Justin Melck (Saracens)
Richard Palframan (London Irish)
Jared Saunders (Saracens)
Matt Stevens (Saracens)
GJ van Velze (Northampton Saints)
– This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine