Heinrich Brussow’s intelligence and character enabled him to leave an underrated mark on Springbok rugby, writes DYLAN JACK.
In an era when brawny giants such as Pierre Spies, Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith and Schalk Burger ruled the Bok loose-forward roost, Brussow did more than his part to change the view of a flank’s role in rugby.
Having earned just 23 Test caps, one can assume that Brussow’s strengths were not always appreciated when it came to Springbok selection. Coming in at well under 2m and weighing slightly over 100kg, Brussow’s lack of height and weight were seen as a liability when loose forwards were expected to jump in the lineout as capably as they could carry around the field.
Brussow’s battling displays for the Cheetahs endeared him to the South African rugby community, but it was in the 2009 British & Irish Lions series where he truly burst on to the scene. Other than being one of the most successful years of Springbok history and the year Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira and Morne Steyn made their marks on Test match history, 2009 was also the year Brussow announced himself as a force at the breakdown.
At that stage, the breakdown was a lawless mess thanks to rucking (read: the use of one’s studs to remove an opponent from the ruck) being outlawed. That just so happened to provide the perfect stage for Brussow to perform.
Brussow would prove to be a menace at the breakdown in the three-match Lions series and only built on that form going into the Tri-Nations. He well and truly outplayed greats in Richie McCaw and George Smith, dominating the breakdown to the point where the Australian picked up a yellow card in frustration.
Unfortunately, with the end of 2011 came the virtual end to Brussow’s Springbok career. De Villiers was sacked and in came Heyneke Meyer, who rightly or wrongly, had a successful game plan that had no place for diminutive flankers.
The change in laws around the breakdown, coupled with a nightmare run of injuries, did as much to bring a premature end to his days in Test rugby. A higher emphasis was placed on ‘showing daylight’ after a tackle. Brussow’s low centre of gravity made it easier for opposition cleaners to get him to his knees in those split seconds after he made a tackle and went in for the ball. Suddenly he found himself on the wrong end of the referee’s whistle.
Still, Brussow fought on and, after a stint in Japan with the Red Hurricanes, he earned a recall to the Bok squad in their Rugby Championship matches which essentially acted as a buildup to the 2015 World Cup. Despite this, he found himself left out of the final 31-man squad, with Meyer preferring Willem Alberts, Pieter-Steph du Toit (who would make his first start at flank in the tournament) and a young Siya Kolisi to provide backup to Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw and Burger.
Brussow made his move to Japan permanent before moving to Northampton and joining the Saints in January 2018 where, despite the injuries that would ultimately force him to hang up his boots, he mentored the likes of England flank Lewis Ludlam.
As it is, Brussow ends his career with just 23 caps. However, his performances in the green and gold and for the Cheetahs belied his stature and made him appear an immovable giant on the field.
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