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Stephen Nell | Columnist Index
Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
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Brits and Boks do not mix
Stephen Nell
June 6, 2011
Saracens' Schalk Brits takes on the Gloucester defence, Saracens v Gloucester, Aviva Premiership Semi-Final, Vicarage Road, Watford, England, May 15, 2011
Brits produced a Man of the Match performance in this season's Aviva Premiership Final but is unlikely to feature at the World Cup © Getty Images
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In the team room at the Western Province Rugby Union's High Performance Centre in Cape Town, there is a huge mounted poster of Schalk Brits in full cry with an accompanying slogan by Magic Johnson. It reads: "Ask not what your team-mates can do for you. Ask what you can do for your team-mates."

Now that European audiences have had a prolonged glimpse of Brits thanks to his move to Saracens, they are probably wondering how it can be that such a phenomenally skilled player is not deemed to be worthy of doing what he does best for his team-mates in Green and Gold.

Brits made his Test debut for South Africa in 2008 and played the last of three internationals against the Wallabies in Perth that year. There he was replaced by current Cheetahs hooker Adriaan Strauss, who made a good physical impact and remains in front of Brits in the Springbok hooker queue.

The heights that Brits has touched on during his stint in England are actually nothing new. Nor is Peter de Villiers, who at least capped Brits in 2008, the first Springbok coach to ignore the hype and stick with what he has.

When Brits was quoted years ago as saying that he might consider a move overseas if he did not make it into the Springbok set-up, former coach Jake White famously responded that the player could phone the South African Rugby Union's travel office and they would accommodate him on his choice of South African Airways or British Airways.

White had John Smit as his captain and prior to the emergence of Bismarck du Plessis was picking Hanyani Shimange as his bench hooker. Gary Botha, whose form in 2004 led to many people questioning White's initial decision to appoint Smit as captain before he had even proved himself that year, was eventually capped as a Springbok in 2005. And then Brits-mania hit South Africa with the resultant drama.

So it was with a distinct sense of déjà vu that I penned this column, having also just reported in recent days what De Villiers said when asked about the possibility of picking Brits.

The Bok coach listed five hookers - Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Adriaan Strauss and Bandise Maku - and asked journalists in whose place he should pick Brits. De Villiers went on to say that Brits had made it difficult for himself by going overseas and that he would only look to pick players from abroad if they were significantly better than what was available in South Africa.

He has already committed to Smit as his World Cup captain, while Bismarck du Plessis is regarded by many as the world's premier hooker. If Brits is in the mix, it will therefore merely be as a third-choice hooker, which also looks unlikely.

Ralepelle has displayed some decent form since getting game time for the Bulls, while Strauss has been inspirational for the Cheetahs. Deon Fourie has also impressed at the Stormers. Unfortunately for Brits, he is a victim of circumstance, with team dynamic and perception playing significant roles.

 
"I fear that Brits is facing disappointment when South Africa announce their World Cup squad on August 23."
 

Notwithstanding his lack of form this year - partly down to a lack of opportunities at hooker - Smit is considered crucial to the Boks' cause. One can argue the rugby merits of the case, but he is a proven leader and also has the rare distinction of transcending provincial boundaries in a rugby nation in which there is often a strong north-south divide.

Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger are also outstanding leaders, but cannot lay claim to being the glue that holds the operation together to the extent that Smit can. Then there is Du Plessis, whose presence is what leads to many people questioning Smit's continued presence in any Bok starting line-up.

When told that Brits might be a better option than Ralepelle as third hooker for the squad, De Villiers countered by saying that the Bulls man was currently in better form than Du Plessis. The question is also whether Brits holds significant value as a third hooker. You either commit to his all-action style or don't - at the least it's a role that he should be playing off the substitutes bench. Unfortunately the places there appear to already have been booked.

Perception is also a dangerous thing and there Brits has suffered in South Africa. When he left these shores, it was with the tag of a player who was incredibly skilful but not strong enough in the scrums or accurate enough in the lineouts.

A stint in the northern hemisphere would certainly have toughened him up in the scrums, while I have been told that his lineout throwing accuracy for Saracens stands at 93%. He has also delivered a strong performance in the Premiership finale. However, I fear these perceptions have become truth in South Africa. Even if it had not been the case, the dynamics of Springbok rugby is such that it's difficult to see them currently finding a place for him.

I do think that is sad because I have seen Brits perform a utility role for the Stormers and he can easily be utilised as a loose forward replacement. One really cannot ask for a more dynamic impact player. I fear that Brits is facing disappointment when South Africa announce their World Cup squad on August 23. It is tough to arrive at that conclusion because I genuinely believe - as I did years ago - that he can make a difference for the Boks.

On top of that, Brits has always played the game with a smile and is a thoroughly nice chap operating at the peak of his immense powers. What a pity then that his phenomenal talent is unlikely to ever be fully realised on the biggest stage.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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