Schalk Brits’ distinctive red scrum cap was ubiquitous in South Africa’s demolition of Namibia as he proved his worth to the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup campaign — just over a year after being plucked from retirement.
Brits, now 38, was relaxing in Ibiza after a distinguished career with Saracens when Boks coach Rassie Erasmus called him out of the blue, keen to harness his skills and leadership qualities as the Springboks target a third World Cup title.
Fast-forward to Toyota City on Saturday and Brits, captain for the day, became South Africa’s second-oldest World Cup player and the second-oldest try-scorer in tournament history as the Springboks dispatched Namibia 57-3.
Erasmus, who deployed the career hooker at number eight, said the effervescent Brits had a crucial role to play in galvanising the wider squad if South Africa were to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2.
“I’ve known him for 20 years so tonight wasn’t a surprise to me, what he brought to the party,” said Erasmus.
“And that’s not just with his game, that’s with his leadership… he’s a wonderful player, he’s a great hooker, a great loose forward, but to keep the other boys positive in terms of being here in the bigger squad, it’s unbelievable what he does there.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s going to play a vital role if we go all the way in this World Cup,” Erasmus added.
Brits said he approached England number eight Billy Vunipola, his former Saracens teammate, for tips on how to play in the unaccustomed position.
“He just said, ‘Don’t change how you play, just play like you play.’ I wasn’t expecting to run as much. I prefer being in the dark arts in the front (row) but to have that freedom is great.”
The former Saracens hooker revelled in the role, providing the final ball for two tries — including the no-look pass that released Makazole Mapimpi — and scoring South Africa’s ninth and final five-pointer himself.
– Cauliflower ears –
It was only the 14th Test cap for Brits, who made his debut in 2008 but had tough competition as Boks hooker in the form of John Smit and Bismarck du Plessis. The father of three boys said he would celebrate with a quiet beer after what was an emotional evening.
“It’s an unbelievable honour to be part of this group, to captain your side was a dream come true in the World Cup. But the players made it very easy on the pitch,” he said.
“It’s quite emotional for me, 38, being involved and leading your country… I’ll probably have a beer tonight and think about it, and share the moment with my team,” he said.
“It’s special, people don’t think about it that way but even just to be part of the squad is emotional and an honour and for me, if I’m playing or holding bags, it’s whatever I can do for my country and for this team to make it better and give us a chance to win this World Cup.”
He also revealed the reason for the red scrum cap — it’s a special request from his family.
“When I started dating my now wife, she said the one thing she doesn’t want is me to have cauliflower ears. She’s not really a rugby girl, so that was a promise or the sacrifice I made is that I’ll always have to wear a cap,” he said.
“And the red colour is because my boys decided on the colour of my cap to spot me easier. I’ve got three little boys, seven, five and three, and they said, ‘Daddy, I need to spot you’.”
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