There is a strong possibility that Cliff Milton will be playing for France in the near future.
The former Bulls lock spent the majority of his career in South Africa watching from the wood or the stands as Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha played yin to the other’s yang. A star at national U21 level, Milton is held in high regard in South Africa, and was expected to make the step up to Test rugby.
However, a prodigious talent like Milton would inevitably become frustrated at being continually overlooked, even though he realised that competing against the world’s best lock pairing was always going to be a big ask. And when that frustration met the opportunity to trade pastel blue for the shocking pink of Stade Francais, the 22-year-old saw a future that involved significantly less splinters.
Even at this early stage of his career with the Paris-based giants, and with limited game time, Milton’s performances are causing quite a stir. He’s occupied prime position in France’s leading rugby publications, and many respected European rugby personalities are convinced that his international future lays in a blue shirt, not a green and gold one.
“There have been a few influential people mentioning me as an option for France in a couple of years and the French public seem to want me to stay and play a part with the national side,” he told keo.co.za.
“It’s certainly an option and I will consider playing for France when that time comes (in two years). To play for the Boks will always be my goal but, again, if France approach me the choice will be pretty simple.”
“The reality is that there are probably guys ahead of me in the queue. At least I think in the selectors’ mind there will be,” he said. “So I’ll just have to keep grafting and hopefully make it really hard for them to ignore me.”
With Matfield and Botha set to be entrenched as the lock pairing for the foreseeable future and others like Johann Muller, Albert van den Berg, Barend Pieterse, Ross Skeate and Andries Bekker lining up to succeed them, Milton could be hanging around for a while before realising his dream of playing for the Springboks. France, conversely, have a shortage of quality locks, making it a far more viable option for Milton if he hopes to play Test rugby.
Milton, who played under Springbok coach Peter de Villiers in the World Championship winning U21 side in 2005, says their relationship is “good”. He is, however, a realist and is not expecting De Villiers to come calling when he meets with some of the European-based players in February.
Asked what he thought of De Villiers’s appointment ahead of his former Bulls mentor Heyneke Meyer, Milton said: “Peter has taken a lot of unfair criticism. He is a very good coach with huge potential. If he’s given the freedom to select the side he wants without any political interference, I think he’ll be very successful.”
For a self-confessed farm boy, Milton has taken to Paris with surprising ease. He spends his free time sampling French cuisine at Paris’ numerous restaurants. “I love the fact that every restaurant has a unique aura about it. You don’t get many franchises over here, so eating out is always a great experience,” he said, adding that former Cheetahs lock and Stade team-mate Boela du Plooy is a constant companion.
“I like the cheeses and I’m getting into rabbit, and it goes without saying that the wines here are some of the best in the world. I’m also becoming more interested the whole art scene,” the 2m, 105kg Nelspruit-born bruiser continued. “Boela and I went to see a Vincent van Gogh exhibition recently and it was amazing to see pieces of artwork I’ve only ever seen on television right in front of me.
“Paris is a great city. The people here are really laid back and not too concerned about material things, although they love their fashion. I’m still catching up in that department.”
Bakkies Botha’s five-year contract extension in late 2007 sealed the deal in Milton’s mind. Stade Francais it was.
“I feel more appreciated here,” he conceded. “All I wanted was a chance to prove my worth and I never got that. At one stage I was so desperate to play that I joined up with Pretoria Police Rugby Club so that I could get some game time and that was a great experience because I was out there doing what I loved instead of watching from the bench.
“Then I got a chance in the Currie Cup and I think they [the Bulls] realised my value so they made an offer. I wanted nothing more than to stay, but Bakkies had a long term deal so it didn’t make sense to sign.”
Botha could of course be a Toulon player soon. That’s got to be frustrating? “No not all,” he counters. “I have no regrets.
“God taught me a valuable lesson while I was here. He made me realise how big the world really is. My frame of reference was always confined to Pretoria, but being able to spend an hour or so on a train and be in Belgium or Spain has made me hungry to see and learn more about the the world. He [God] taught me that money was a finite thing and that the rat race was one sporting event I didn’t want to be involved in. The experiences you have and memories you make have enduring value.
“I wouldn’t trade those lessons for anything.”
By Ryan Vrede