Champion performer

JON CARDINELLI says Schalk Brits should go to the World Cup with the Springboks.

As kick-off approached, Schalk Brits made up his mind. He was going to enjoy the game no matter what. The stakes couldn’t have been higher for Saracens in their second consecutive Premiership final, and they would be looking to their South African talisman to provide the necessary spark.

‘How could I have been anything but confident in my own ability?’ he asks, as if it’s the most obvious notion in the world. ‘Opportunities to play in a championship game don’t come around too often, and you have to enjoy yourself; you have to jol all you can. I never want it to be a case of looking at myself in the mirror afterwards and saying I could have given more. You have to leave it all out on the field. No ifs. No buts.’

By the final whistle, Brits had set Twickenham on fire and Saracens had captured the cup. The praise that followed his Man of the Match performance confirmed his contribution as wholehearted and inspired. Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall described him as ‘Superman’, but Leicester scrumhalf Ben Youngs was closer to the mark. Youngs said that the Saracens hooker was the difference between the two sides, calling Brits ‘phenomenal’ and ‘a man possessed’.

The word ‘possessed’ certainly does Brits justice. It’s a unique energy that runs through his body; an indomitable attitude and spirit that sets him apart. For the past two seasons, Brits has gone above and beyond the call of front-row duty. He can often be found among the Saracens’ backs, that unnatural turn of speed and other-worldly sidestep leaving lesser mortals grasping at a phantom. And as was the case during injury time of that Premiership final, he can be counted on to make tackle after tackle in a pressure situation.

Brits has left his mark on England. Apart from a Premiership winner’s medal, he was named one of the tournament’s three best players of the 2010-11 season, while his electrifying try against Gloucester in April was voted the finest of the campaign. Writing in his column for The Guardian, Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards included Brits in his Premiership team of the tournament. It was a big compliment and an even bigger statement from somebody involved with a Wales team that will face the Springboks at the World Cup.

It’s strange that people are still asking what’s next for the versatile player. The answer seems obvious. For Brendan Venter, who remains involved with Saracens even though he quit his director of rugby post last December, Brits deserves a Springbok recall.

‘People have called Schalk Brits the best hooker in England. I don’t agree with that. He is the best player in England, period. In fact, he is up there with the best in Europe,’ Venter says. ‘I’d be amazed if you told me you can’t find a place for him in a World Cup squad of 30. Few forwards have his skill set and versatility. Besides what he offers you at hooker, he can come on as a blindside flank, or even a centre in emergencies, and break open the game with a moment of magic. Also, people tend to focus on his attacking qualities, but they often forget that he is a defensive giant who can shift the momentum of the match with a big hit. Why would you not want a player with that capacity at your disposal?’

Peter de Villiers has his reasons. Less than a week after Saracens beat Leicester to win the Premiership, De Villiers declared Brits no better than any of the other South African hookers competing in Super Rugby. As usual, the Bok coach struggled in an attempt to qualify what most would recognise as an outrageous statement.

‘He is a brilliant player,’ offered De Villiers, ‘but with the state of the game here, in whose place would you select him when you have John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Adriaan Strauss and Bandise Maku?

‘If Schalk had played for us last year, and then played in this country this year, then we would have known. He made the choice of going overseas. He is so unlucky. I believe he can make a difference, but he is playing in a position where we have more than enough depth.’

While De Villiers is right to boast about South Africa’s hooking depth, he’s wrong about the pecking order. Smit will captain the team at the World Cup, and Du Plessis has made a strong claim for that starting hooker position. The Boks will take a third hooker to New Zealand and if that selection is based on performance rather than political reasons or geographical location, Brits is the obvious choice. As Venter suggests, his versatility can be an asset, and by excelling in the most testing of set-piece conditions he’s already shown himself to be a fine scrum and lineout exponent.

‘We’ve been one of the strongest scrums in the Premiership and Schalk fed 11 from 11 lineouts in a major final,’ says Venter. ‘I think the perception that Schalk is weak at the set piece is flawed. I can’t remember him letting the Boks down in this regard. People will always find ways of justifying their perception, even in light of evidence to the contrary.’

Brits admits that many of his technical improvements have been made since he joined Saracens in 2009. Playing alongside Italy prop Carlos Nieto and having a scrum coach like former Bok tighthead Cobus Visagie did wonders for his set-piece game.

‘I’m 100kg, so any success I enjoy at scrum time is going to be down to technique rather than brute power,’ he says. ‘You won’t survive in the northern hemisphere if you can’t scrum. The referees encourage it,  and there are often long, drawn out battles where the dominant team is allowed to push the opposition as much as 20m. It’s not like Super Rugby where refs try to speed the game along; there is a real emphasis on the scrum in the northern leagues.’

As his recent performances will show, he’s managed to better his scrumming without sacrificing the flair that made him such a standout for the Stormers. Brits argues that up north, you need to employ different styles for different seasons. In the winter months, a slow grinding, territorial game is required because to play expansively would be counter-productive. When the weather is better in the period before and after winter, there are more opportunities to run the ball.

‘I think I’ve developed to the point where I’m comfortable in either style,’ he says. ‘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.

‘What has been great at Saracens is that every player is asked to play to their strengths. 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 into play. Credit must go 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.’

It comes back to Venter’s inference that the Springbok selectors are just plain ignorant. Why wouldn’t you want this kind of talent at your disposal? Are the Springboks really so well stocked that Brits doesn’t deserve a place in the World Cup squad?

How many other players are there in South African, and even world rugby, who are, to requote Youngs, ‘possessed’?

‘Nobody is ever going to be satisfied with just three Tests,’ Brits says, referring to his short stint with the Boks in 2008. ‘I’ve played a lot for the Barbarians; it’s the kind of game that’s tailor-made for me, but it just can’t compare to proper Test rugby. I want to play in the big games where the Boks take on the All Blacks or England. Those are the types of games you live for.

‘But I can’t tell Peter de Villiers to pick me, that’s his decision. All I can do is ensure that I always give of my best. I won’t ever stop enjoying myself. I won’t ever stop trying.’

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine. The August issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 27 July.