Brits boosted by northern exposure

JON CARDINELLI chats to Schalk Brits about flawed perceptions of northern hemisphere playing conditions and how he’s managed to improve his scrumming without compromising his attacking flair.

Brits was named Man of the Match for his heroic contributions in last Saturday’s English Premiership final. The Saracens’ hooker was in top form at the set-piece, scrumming impressively and producing a flawless display at the lineout, while a searing linebreak culminated in what would be an important try for team-mate James Short.

It was a fitting climax after two long seasons in the northern leagues. When Brits left the Stormers for Saracens in 2009, he left with a reputation as a set-piece liability. It was also felt that the slow, weather-afflicted European pitches would prohibit him from playing to his natural attacking strengths.

Two years on, and Brits has proved the doubters wrong on both counts. For starters, working with former Springbok tighthead Cobus Visagie, the Saracens scrum doctor, has aided his transformation.

‘It’s been very necessary for me to improve my scrumming, because you won’t survive in the northern hemisphere if you can’t scrum,’ Brits told keo.co.za. ‘The referees encourage scrumming, and there are often long, drawn out battles where the dominant team is allowed to push the opposition as many as 20 metres. It’s not like Super Rugby where refs try to speed the game along, there’s a real emphasis on the scrum in the northern leagues.’

As seen in that famous final win for Saracens, Brits’s role hasn’t been limited to that of typical front-ranker. He could often be found sitting deep in anticipation of a Leicester kick, a premeditated tactic designed to exploit his speed and agility.

‘What’s great at Saracens is that every player is asked to play to their strengths,’ he says. ‘There are times when I’m out of position, but in those situations it’s for a particular reason.

‘I’m heavily involved in the forward battles at the collisions and set-piece, but I also tend to stay deep for the counter-attack, because that’s where my other strengths can come to the fore. Credit to Saracens for giving me that kind of freedom. You’re encouraged to play within the team structures, but there is still room to express yourself.’

Brits is but one example of a South African that’s benefited from a stint in Europe. Ross Skeate recently told SA Rugby magazine that his time with French club Toulon allowed him to address his physical shortcomings and turn a weakness into a strength. Joe van Niekerk continues to impress since making the move north with last Sunday’s showing for the Barbarians just one in a string of fine performances.

Ruan Pienaar says that his time with Ulster has forced him to develop a harder edge, while Marius Joubert won a title with Clermont in 2010 after taking his own game to another level. Both Pienaar and Joubert have returned to South Africa, and the benefits of their respective sojourns should be evident when they turn out for the Boks and Sharks respectively later this year.

It challenges the belief that a move to Europe is best made at the end of one’s career, and that there’s no chance of improvement once committing to a northern club. The idea that the weather represses creativity is only partially true, as Brits explains.

‘You need to employ different styles for different seasons,’ he says. ‘In winter, you have to play that slow grinding, territorial game because to play expansively would be counter-productive. When the weather is better in the period before and after winter, then you can run the ball a lot more.

‘I think I’ve developed to the point where I’m comfortable in either style. I’m happy to play it close and pick and drive in winter, but when the weather is favourable I will have a full go. It also comes down to what the team needs in terms of our game plan and approach.’

Follow JC on Twitter

Follow SA Rugby on Twitter