The unorthodox and largely underappreciated Schalk Brits saved the best for last in his international career, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Barbarians went down 43-33 in the clash with Wales on Saturday. There were moments in the latter stages of that contest, however, when they threatened to hit back and deny the Dragons a winning start under new coach Wayne Pivac.
Was anyone surprised to see Brits – who came off the bench in the second half – leading the fightback? The trademark step and surge proved devastating against a tiring Wales defence. The basketball offload that made Pete Samu’s try was straight out of the Harlem Globetrotters’ playbook.
That explosive cameo will ensure that the unorthodox South African hooker is remembered for all the right reasons. Over the course of his career, Brits played the game like he lived his life: with his heart on his sleeve and a smile on his face. The match against Wales was no different.
Brits won two European Cups and four English Premiership titles during his nine-year stint with Saracens. Coaches like Brendan Venter and Mark McCall tailored the team’s game plan to harness Brits’ strengths in broken play.
It took far longer for a South African coach to recognise Brits’ value as a player and leader. While he played a few Tests under Peter de Villiers and travelled with Heyneke Meyer’s Boks to the 2015 World Cup, he was never a frontline player and never part of the leadership group.
Rassie Erasmus came in for a lot of criticism when he called Brits out of retirement in June 2018. A lot of fans, journalists and even a few coaches scoffed at the idea of including an older player to mentor the Bok forwards.
Erasmus, of course, has been vindicated. Brits captained the Springbok ‘B’ team over the course of the World Cup pool stage. While he didn’t feature at all during the playoffs, he played a crucial role behind the scenes in terms of motivating and preparing the players that would eventually go on to beat Japan, Wales and England.
Anyone who has attended a Bok training session over the past two years will vouch for the fact that Brits is a hard worker and is well respected by his peers. The players and coaches I’ve spoken to in recent months – including Erasmus – have extolled the virtues of Brits’ attitude and experience as well as the effect that he has had on the group as a whole.
Former Bok captain Jean de Villiers went as far as to compare Brits’ contributions in 2019 to those of Bob Skinstad in 2007. De Villiers recalled how Skinstad – a former Bok captain himself – played a key leadership role over the course of the 2007 World Cup campaign. The No 8 was left out of the match-day squad ahead the final, yet played a part in preparing the team for the clash with England.
In a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine, head of athletic performance Aled Walters went out of his way to credit the eight squad members who didn’t feature in the 2019 World Cup final against England. Walters made special mention of Brits and Elton Jantjies, who put aside their personal disappointments to help the team that was selected prepare for the challenge to come.
Brits, Jantjies and all of those who weren’t selected were tasked with researching England’s tactics and impersonating England’s top players on the training pitch. Every effort was made to simulate the World Cup final contest before it played out.
Over the course of the tournament, captain Siya Kolisi gave credit to the wider leadership group. While Brits played two games in Japan, Kolisi often spoke about the veteran in the same breath as more prominent senior players in the starting team.
Brits bowed out in June 2018 as a great of the northern-hemisphere game. When he got the call from Erasmus to join the Boks, he was given a mandate to help with the preparations and mentor the younger players ahead of the physically and mentally demanding games at the World Cup. As the Bok coaches and players will tell you, Brits did his duty in this respect.
What’s more, Brits held nothing back when he received the opportunity to wear the Bok jersey and to add to his modest tally of Test caps. Be it at No 8 or hooker, the veteran played with the energy and the determination of a younger man. In doing so, he set an example for his teammates.
The recent match in Cardiff yielded a disappointing result for the Barbarians yet a fitting farewell for Brits. He played his final professional game like he did his first, with a surge and a step and a smile on his face.
He should be remembered for his approach to the game as well as his contributions behind the scenes. 2019 was a big year for the Boks and South African rugby fans would do well to remember how Brits – in his final season as a professional player– helped South Africa realise its World Cup dream.
Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images for Barbarians