Saracens hooker Schalk Brits is a man with a knack for doing the unconventional; a propensity for looking for the unexpected. In fact if you didn’t know any better, a lot of the time you would swear he was missing a number ‘1’ from his shirt, to go before the ‘2’.
‘Unexpected’ would also be a good way to describe a lot of the saga over Europe this season. Not many fans began the year believing this would be the last season of the Heineken Cup’s existence, and yet for a while that was what seemed likely – until, of course, the French performed an about turn and reaffirmed their loyalty to it. Imprévu, indeed.
With the latest developments seemingly making it less likely the English clubs will feature in an all-inclusive European competition next season, Brits is at pains to point out how important the Heineken Cup is to the players.
“The Heineken Cup is quite unique,” he says. “It’s a different style of rugby [to the Premiership]. You’re playing the best teams in Europe, and you get different styles of play. In the Premiership there is the odd club that has a different style, but playing against the French, Italians, Scottish, Irish, Welsh – they’ve all got different things that they bring to the tournament, so that just makes it so much more exciting from our perspective.
“From a player’s perspective, you just want to be involved in the best tournaments,” he adds. “It’s the best competition you can be involved in up here in the North, supported by great supporters, so we want to be involved in these games at full stadiums, with all the hype that surrounds them. Hopefully the people in charge will sort this out and we’ll just have a great competition next year, or the year after, or whenever.”
Of course one of the alternatives that has been rumoured in places is the creation of an English/South African tournament of some shape or form, and as a Springbok plying his trade in the UK, that is a prospect that obviously excites him.
“Of course I’d be interested in that, beating my own countrymen!” he laughs. “I do think it’s something fresh, something new, and you’d get amazing experiences.
“It would be amazing if you got the South African guys coming up to play the English guys, and the French, and make it a nice big competition. I think it’d be well supported, and would generate a lot of interest, and we’d see an amazing competition.”
Away from the boardrooms and back on the pitch, Brits is relishing his rugby as much as ever. An enigmatic hooker, the South African has never quite fit with the national profile for their front row forwards: big, beefy ball-carriers. Brits, with his yellow boots and dancing feet, has found a home in north London, however, at a club that has allowed him to express himself to the full.
“Saracens, more than the previous clubs I’ve been at, give you the freedom to play the game you want,” he says. “I’m so happy just being here, enjoying the game, and that’s the most important part for me – enjoying the game I love.”
Most neutrals would agree that Brits is great to watch, although usually when he is not up against your own team. So why are there not more hookers of his ilk – slightly smaller, but much more skilful – coming out of the woodwork?
“I think it probably starts from a young age, when you just stick the biggest guys in the front row,” he says thoughtfully. “But these days, going forward your hooker becomes your fourth loose forward, so I believe you get involved a lot more.
“From way back when I was a little boy, I watched Keith Wood play and he inspired me not to play on the flank but to move to hooker. There are so many facets to the game – throwing in, which has to be literally on the dot – then you’ve got the scrummaging, and you’ve got to hit the rucks and the mauls. You tend to float all the time; there isn’t really a set pattern for you. That’s what I love about it.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the list of mentors they’ve had at their disposal (Brits, John Smit, Fabio Ongaro), there are two young English hookers at Saracens that have been making waves in recent times. Jamie George scored a brace in the first game of the season, and has been rotated in the starting line-up with Brits, while young Scott Spurling made a name for himself with a 60m solo effort at Twickenham in the Help for Heroes game a few years ago. Brits is clearly proud of the future of hooker at his club.
“I put a bet on Jamie to play in the next World Cup in almost my first year I came to Saracens,” he says. “For me it’s great, because Jamie has learnt a lot from John, and Fabio Ongaro who was at the club before.
“Hopefully I can teach Jamie a thing or two, and he can take the best out of me, and the best out of John and Fabio, and become the complete hooker. It’s a great project, and it’s great to see Jamie, and Scotty, and all the young hookers coming through at Saracens, growing and enjoying life, and enjoying the position itself.”
“Soon – well, hopefully not that soon – I’ll be sitting on the couch watching them rip it up on the pitch, and hopefully representing England.”
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Schalk Brits was speaking to The Rugby Blog as part of a Saracens appearance for Gatorade, official partner of the Aviva Premiership. Information on Gatorade’s nutrition products, hydration tips and training videos are all available at www.Gatorade.co.uk, by following @GatoradeUK and liking facebook.com/GatoradeUK
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images