Schalk Brits’ colourful career was capped by a World Cup winner’s medal, writes Jon Cardinelli.
A three-year-old boy with dark hair and a familiar smile rushes past me as I enter a coffee shop on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. As I walk through the door, I see two older boys racing their bikes around a small track. The eldest of the trio is wearing a Springbok No 2 jersey and calling for his father to watch as he takes a corner at breakneck speed.
Schalk Brits smiles and waves back. His long and eventful rugby career has come to an end, and he will focus on his family and a new career with Remgro – Johann Rupert’s investment holding company – for the foreseeable future. The 38-year-old confirms that he has no plans to come out of a retirement for a third time.
During this period of transition, Brits is keen to reflect on the final and largely unexpected chapter of his rugby story. It began with Rassie Erasmus bringing him out of retirement in June 2018 and ended with the veteran hooker collecting a World Cup-winner’s medal in Japan. While he made a lot of unforgettable memories in that time, he says he has some regrets.
‘When I got back, my middle son asked, “Daddy, do you still love me?” I said, “Hunter, what kind of question is that? Of course I love you”. To which he replied, “Don’t people who love each other spend time together? Why are you never at home?”
‘My heart sank when I heard that,’ he says. ‘Here is this little man – who is so passionate about our family – putting it all into perspective for me. I’ve been on an incredible journey around the world. I’ve seen some amazing places and have enjoyed so many great experiences. Most of those memories, however, have been made with my teammates and coaches. My family has had to make a lot of sacrifices for me to realise my dream.’
The Brits family had just relocated to Stellenbosch when SA Rugby magazine caught up with the former Saracens star in late 2018. At that stage, Brits was set to join the Stormers ahead of the 2019 Super Rugby season. When the deal fell through, Brits signed with the Bulls and was forced to leave his family behind in the Western Cape.
‘I must have caught 70-odd flights over the course of the year,’ he says. ‘When I think about it, that red card that I got in the Sharks game – which led to a two-week suspension – turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Bulls coach Pote Human was good enough to send me home for those two weeks and I got to spend some time with my family.
‘We were away for 20 weeks with the Boks from the start of the Rugby Championship to the end of the World Cup. Then there was the trophy tour afterwards. It was great, but it amounted to another week away from home.
‘It was incredibly hard to be away for so long,’ he continues. ‘Even now, after winning the trophy, I don’t know if that justified the sacrifices that we had to make. It was very different when I was Saracens, where we would fly in and out for an away game. I was basically a stay-at-home dad who played a bit of rugby.
‘Maybe in five or 10 years’ time I will say, “Yes, the World Cup victory was worth the sacrifices”. My eldest son Christian (7) was proud of me when I returned with a medal. Hunter (5) and Luke James (3), however, didn’t understand why I was gone. It’s fantastic that we’ve won the World Cup and I had that experience. If you had to ask my wife the same question, however, I don’t know what she’d say.’
More than a few eyebrows were raised when Brits – then 37 – returned to the Bok set-up in June 2018. Erasmus spoke about the veteran’s role and how he would mentor younger players like Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi. Later, critics of the move demanded to know whether Erasmus could afford to include a ‘specialist mentor’ in a World Cup squad of 31 players.
While Brits embraced that role wholeheartedly, it was always his intention to fight for a starting place. Now that his Test career his over, he has some regrets about the number of games he played for his country.
‘I had a really disappointing Springbok career from that perspective,’ he says. ‘I played only 15 Tests. I lost only two of those, though, so maybe that’s something. I also got the chance to captain the side and we won all three of those Tests.
‘I didn’t know that I would play so few Tests over the 2018 and 2019 seasons,’ he points out. ‘I worked incredibly hard to get myself ready for the opportunity to wear the No 2 jersey. From a statistical point of view, I felt that I was as good as I could possibly be. In the end, it was up to the coach to make the selections.
‘You’ve got to move forward from those disappointments,’ he says. ‘I remember, about 13 or 14 years ago, when Jake White didn’t pick me. That really got me down. I started to learn, however, that those feelings were stealing a lot of my energy. Things change in the space of a week and the next opportunity is often around the corner. You just have to keep fighting.’
The players often referred to Brits as ‘Coach Schalk’ at the World Cup tournament in Japan. He added value to preparing the team and may have given the Boks an edge ahead of the final clash against England, a side stacked with his former Saracens teammates.
‘I suppose it doesn’t look too great if you judge me by the number of minutes I played at the World Cup,’ he says. ‘You have to remember that there is more to the job than that. It’s about whether you are giving more than you are taking within the set-up. Regardless of whether I got picked for any particular game, I gave absolutely everything to the cause.
‘There are a lot of different ways of playing rugby and the game has changed quite a bit – on defence and on attack – over the past two seasons,’ Brits says, as we start to explore the Boks’ gameplan and tactics at the World Cup. ‘When you delve into the stats you will realise that.
‘Our coaching team worked unbelievably hard to prepare us. We had different key performance indicators for Japan, Wales and England. It was only through hard work and analysis that our coaches were able to determine the essence of each individual challenge. We did things that weren’t popular. We would have been slaughtered for the way we played against Wales if we hadn’t won. That said, we knew that approach would give us the best chance of victory.’
Many critics feel that a change of gameplan allowed the Boks to smash England 32-12 in the decider. Brits, however, says that the team’s forward dominance and selection policy enabled them to play more expansively later in the game.
‘We got lucky when Kyle Sinckler was injured early in the game. It meant that replacement tighthead Dan Cole had to play most of the final against two fresh loosehead props. We knew that if we got on top of them at the set piece we were going to strike in a different way.
‘It was a risk to pick a six-two split on the bench. The gamble paid off handsomely in the final. I know a lot of people said that we shouldn’t have gone that way or that we shouldn’t have done this or that. We all bought into the plan, though, and stuck to it. That was what made the group, and ultimately what we achieved, really special.’
Nothing could have prepared the well-travelled and vastly experienced player for what transpired directly after the final in Yokohama, and in the weeks that followed in South Africa.
‘The moment where Siya Kolisi lifted the trophy was surreal,’ says Brits. ‘I was very fortunate at Saracens in that I was able to enjoy some success in terms of titles. That win in Japan was something completely different. If you look at the bigger picture, our country needed that lift in terms of hope and energy.
‘It became clear that we weren’t only playing for ourselves or our families but for an entire nation,’ he says. ‘We had a very diverse team, yet our diversity was always a strength. Like Siya said after the win, South Africa as a nation can take a lesson from what we achieved. We must all learn to work together toward a common goal.’
Brits began his new job with Remgro at the start of 2020. While he hasn’t abandoned his dream of studying a MBA at Cambridge this year, and perhaps featuring in the famous varsity clash against Oxford at Twickenham, his immediate focus is on his job and his family.
‘The 8-to-5 job going to be a challenge. I’m sure that I will have to face it with the same energy and attitude I brought to the rugby field. You always want to be in the starting team and you always want to succeed in business. That doesn’t always happen, though. You need to realise that failure isn’t a bad thing if you learn from the experience and move forward.’
As he moves on, Brits feels that more can be done to prepare players for life after rugby.
‘Players don’t earn a lot in the grand scheme of things,’ he says. ‘You pay maximum tax and there’s no tax efficiency. There’s little planning and preparation for what comes next.
‘Nowadays you want the players to be professional from the age of 18. They don’t get the chance to study and to get a degree. What kind of skills are we giving our players for the real world? What happens if a young guy gets a serious injury and is forced to retire?
‘The real world is an unforgiving place. When your cashflow comes to a halt you may find yourself in a position where you have to sell your assets. It’s scary, but that’s where I was after the World Cup. There was no money coming in until I started my job with Remgro.
‘You have to make sure that your plans are in place. Some players will retire in their mid-to-late thirties and find themselves in a position where they have a couple of young kids and no idea about how to generate income.’
Erasmus has made a difference since returning to South Africa in late 2017. Under the former Bok flank, the national team won the Rugby Championship, World Cup and reclaimed World Rugby’s No 1 ranking. Will Brits, another former player with a lot to give, return to the SA Rugby set-up in the the coming years? Will he marry his rugby experience with his financial expertise to address some of the issues that are afflicting the game in South Africa?
‘Who knows what the future holds,‘ he says with a wink. ‘I must earn my stripes as an independent before I go back to rugby. There are a lot of external influences in our game. If we get the focus right, that rugby and the success of our team is the most important thing and not the interests of individuals, then we will be in a good space.
‘My family and I will remain in Stellenbosch for at least another two years,’ he adds. ‘I love this country and its people. Wherever I end up, I hope that I will make a difference.’
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