‘My size doesn’t matter here’

Brent Russell on life in Clermont, learning French, and why overseas-based players should be considered for the Boks.

RussellYou had a run of injuries at Saracens which were disruptive. How have you been doing injury-wise at Clermont?
I’ve had a few niggles since I left South Africa, but that’s part of rugby. I haven’t had any serious injuries with Clermont, apart from when I was out for four weeks at the end of last year when I went over my ankle. But I’m feeling fine now and I’m definitely more battle-hardened.

You’ve said flyhalf and fullback are your favourite positions. Have you been happy with your opportunities at Clermont?
I started our first European Cup match at flyhalf, which was exciting. I’ve been playing quite a lot at wing, and have covered fullback, so I’ve had good opportunities.

What’s it like competing for places in the back three with international players like Benoit Baby, Napolioni Nalaga, Anthony Floch, Julien Malzieu and Aurelien Rougerie?
It’s healthy competition, and the coaches’ man-management is very good. You want to get the best out of your players for as long as possible, considering how many games we play each season. I don’t expect to start every game and I don’t consider myself better than anyone else, it’s just a matter of being ready to play when I get my chance. [Coach] Vern Cotter has been fair and given me quite a bit of game time. Being utilised properly makes a huge difference.

What’s Cotter like as a coach?
Vern learnt his coaching in New Zealand, but has also played in France. He speaks the language, which the Frenchies enjoy, but he has that southern-hemisphere rugby outlook and style. He has good coaching techniques, and spends a lot of time on the mental side of things, and because he was a player, he knows how we think. He’s a strict disciplinarian, he does his homework on the opposition and he knows how to dissect teams, so when he speaks, we listen. Vern is mostly involved with the pack, while Jo Schmidt – who coached the Blues until 2007 – looks after the backs. He is also knowledgeable and approachable, which is important to me.
When coaches listen to players, we listen more to what they say.

What makes the Clermont coaching staff’s management unique?
The way they come across is very important. Every player is different and needs to be treated accordingly. Every week they tell you what things you need to work on, and they believe in you and in what you do. They reward you when you do well, and when you’ve had a bad day they give you constructive criticism – it’s not just negative feedback and then you’re dropped. You have to constantly work on your game.

How are your French lessons going?
It’s still tough, as it’s a difficult language to pick up. I’m understanding it quite a bit more, but I find it difficult to speak the language with confidence as I don’t know the entire vocabulary. We’ve got a mental coach who comes in once a month and he speaks in French, so as a foreigner you’ve got to adapt.

What reception did Frans Steyn get when he arrived at Racing Metro?
He’s been well received. We played Racing Metro two or three weeks before he arrived and there was anticipation and excitement about him. There’s a lot of hype surrounding South African rugby at the moment because the Boks have been doing so well, so when a Bok arrives it’s good for the game here. Frans has only just started his career in France, so people are waiting to see how he performs. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to the change in lifestyle and rugby.

Clermont have a history of losing in finals. How’s the team addressing the issue?
It’s a psychological thing, so our mental coach is helping us work on that aspect. Hopefully when we reach another final we’ll be ready for it.

How are the two other South Africans at Clermont, Marius Joubert and Willie Wepener, faring?
Willie’s an easygoing guy and he’s doing really nicely. He didn’t get much game time in the initial stages as the coach likes to ease new players into the system until they have familiarised themselves with the surroundings and built up their confidence. He scored a couple of tries when he did play, which helped him settle. Marius [above] has a strong reputation, and understandably so, but he had quite a bad groin injury at the end of last season. He tried to come back too early, and then had to have an operation. He’s been playing more now and is still highly regarded. He is great with ball in hand, is nice to run off, a good defender, and has great vision.

How does the standard of domestic rugby in France compare to South Africa’s?
I’ve always said that the French Top 14 is quite similar to the Currie Cup in terms of style, but the reffing is not up to standard here [only a few officials are professional in France]. It’s a long season [each team plays each other home and away, plus play-offs] that is taken seriously, which means there is quite a bit of pressure. But we have a strong squad, and generally, good depth is imperative in France.

The new laws have meant an increase in the kicking of up-and-unders. Has this affected your game?
Not at all. The French enjoy running the ball and it’s spread around quite a bit. Maybe the Super 14 has changed, but I haven’t noticed much of a difference here.

Are smaller players like yourself appreciated more in France than in South Africa?
Size is definitely less of a factor here. In fact, I don’t think anyone has mentioned my size since I came to France. There are smaller players than me in the Top 14.

What are your thoughts on the increasing influence and presence of South Africans at your ex-club, Saracens?
The South African players and coaches are doing really well, and it’s great to see the
way they’ve pulled a side together so quickly. I was happy at Saracens, but my time was up and I’m happy with my move to Clermont.

Do you have any regrets that your Bok career ended so abruptly after the Boks’ loss to France at Newlands in 2006?
You never know when or how your playing career will end. I’m happy with what I achieved at Test level, and I can’t ask for more in terms of the opportunities I had. As long as you’re playing rugby in South Africa, it will always be an ambition to play for the Boks, and I’m not bitter about anything – I’m just trying to enjoy the last few years of my rugby career. I’m enjoying it, I’m experiencing a new culture and learning a new language, and will return to South Africa with great memories. Hopefully I’ll stay involved in the game after I retire.

What are your thoughts on Peter de Villiers’s policy of not considering overseas-based players for the Bok team?
People have to keep in mind that this is our livelihood, and we’re thinking of our families and futures. I’ve probably got about four years of rugby left in me and I have to maximise my earning potential. A guy like Frans would have been stupid to turn down such a huge deal from Racing Metro, and why should that mean the end of his Bok career? The Springbok coaching staff should want him to play for the national team for as long as possible because he is still pretty young and very talented. It’s only natural for players to want to go overseas, but I’ve heard there are better contracts being offered in South Africa now, so that could help keep guys there.

Your good mate De Wet Barry has come back from London Harlequins to play for Eastern Province, with the intention of playing for the Southern Kings in an expanded Super Rugby tournament. What do you think about his move, and would it be an option for you, having been schooled in the Eastern Cape?
SAR coverIf the opportunity arose and the timing was right, I would definitely consider playing for the Kings. I have such fond memories of playing rugby in that region, and I’m sure if they can manage and nurture the talent well, the franchise will be a success. I speak to De Wet regularly, and he says he’s loving it in PE. It’s always tough to launch a new team, but I have a feeling they will do well.

By Grant Ball

– This article first appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby magazine