Schalk Brits: Sarries' little big man

As his side prepare to face Leicester in today's semi-final, the Saracens hooker tells Chris Hewett that size doesn't matter – but imagination does...

David Campese had one, and he never tired of telling people about it. John Eales had one too, but was congenitally incapable of boasting. Serge Blanco and Mark Ella were similarly blessed; so was the Welsh outside-half Arwel Thomas, although he never scaled the heights of the others because he was knee-high to a grasshopper, 5st dripping wet and played in an age when behemoths were beginning to roam the rugby earth, eating dimensionally challenged folk like him for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We are talking of imagination: a gift, bestowed only on the select few, to think and act differently on the field, and by so doing to make rugby new.

If anyone is capable of delivering mind-altering performances in today's Premiership, a tournament generally fought out on the tiniest margins between players who do pretty much the same thing, it is the Saracens hooker Schalk Brits – a front-row forward who, with his startling pace, intricate footwork, slide-rule running angles and exquisite timing (not to mention the precision of his passing off either hand), makes and creates more line-breaks over the long stretch of a season than entire back divisions inhabiting the lower reaches of the league table.

The elfin Thomas would regard him as a kindred spirit, not least because Brits has also fallen victim to the size obsession.

"Rugby is a game of perceptions," he says, tucking into a plate of something indescribable, if undoubtedly healthy, after a training session ahead of this evening's Premiership semi-final with Leicester at Welford Road. "The perception back home in South Africa is that if you don't weigh 110kg minimum, you can't scrummage. And in South Africa, the scrum is a pretty big part of the game. I can argue with that assumption until I'm blue in the face, but I'm not the guy who picks the team. I fought my battle to play rugby the way I want to play it and I'm happy I did so, but I can't force selectors to select me."

Brits has three Springbok caps to his name: in 2008, he came off the bench against Italy and New Zealand before starting a Tri-Nations Test against the Wallabies in Perth. Those who think he should have three dozen shake their heads at the injustice of it all and it was ironic in the extreme that, when another South African hooker materialised at Saracens after last year's World Cup, it turned out to be none other than John Smit, whose vital statistics on both the physical and representational fronts are rather different. Magnificent though Smit has been in leading the Boks through thick and thin, no one ever accused him of artistry. He is, however, three inches taller and more than three stone heavier than his countryman, which may explain why, when it comes to the cap count, he is 108 ahead.

While acknowledging that Smit will take a bit of catching, Brits has not abandoned hope of playing his way back into the thoughts of the Springbok hierarchy. He is committed to spending another season at Saracens, but come the summer of next year he may, depending on the lie of the land in the republic, target a place in the squad for the World Cup in 2015. Already in his early thirties – he turns 31 on Wednesday – he will be no spring chicken by the time that tournament kicks off at Twickenham, but then, Smit was 33 going into last autumn's competition in New Zealand. Age does not wither the best front-row forwards, perhaps because they were withered before they started.

"I knew when I left the Stormers [the Super 15 franchise based in Cape Town] to come to England that my chances of playing international rugby would go downhill," says the man from Empangeni, a small town in the hill country north of Durban on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. "That was a calculation I made, knowing the full implications. Regrets? None at all. I came here to experience rugby of a different kind, in a different place, and it's been amazing. Now that the game is internationalising itself more every year, with players switching hemispheres in ever greater numbers, I'd like to think I'll get another chance. My fondest wish would be to play in the next World Cup against an England team with Jamie George at hooker."

George, a 21-year-old forward from Welwyn Garden City, is one of the brightest prospects in the red-rose game, one of two brilliant young hookers with an eye on Brits' place in the Saracens senior side – the other being Scott Spurling, the current England Under-20 player from central London. Both have been the talk of the coaching community for a while now. Does the South African believe they have what it takes? "Far from being overrated, I think they're underrated," he replies. "Outstanding talents, both of them. I'm not a gambling man, but I have a £100 bet with someone that Jamie will play at the next World Cup." Is he standing in their way, then? "I'd never want to hold them back. I'll do whatever is best for Saracens."

If Brits has bought into the Saracens "project", as it is routinely described, it is not simply because of the South African influence at work there, both at board level and in the playing squad. He thinks, not unreasonably, that the reigning English champions are unique in their approach to team-building, not only in the pure rugby sense but in terms of pastoral care and individual development away from the game.

"Brendan Venter [the World Cup-winning Springbok centre who joined Saracens as director of rugby in 2009 and set about creating a club in his own image] started the process, but it has continued since he returned home," Brits says. "What other club would organise a trip to the Munich Beer Festival for the players and also set up a crèche for your kids? What other club provides the same service for the people in the youth team as they provide for the guys in the Premiership side? I've never seen anything like it in rugby and I'm proud to be a part of it.

"The way I see it, I'm one of the lucky ones. I've been able to make a career in rugby while seeing rugby only as a small part of life. It's never been everything to me: life is about balance, and maintaining that balance allows me to enjoy doing what I do. When I was first making my way in senior rugby, I was also doing a degree in accountancy. That gave me the freedom to give the game a go for a year or so in the knowledge that, if it didn't work out, there was somewhere else to turn. These days, young players turn professional much earlier. It's why the club takes the personal development side of things so seriously."

When Brits talks of freedom, he speaks as he plays: when he has the ball in his hands, a broken field in front of him, he is in his element. Two years ago, he was one of the crucial components in a late-season flowing of attacking rugby that surprised all those who had spent the previous weeks and months watching a risk-free, functional, methodical Saracens eke out victories over opponents who could not find a way of breaking down their structures. Prompted by a small but significant change to the refereeing of the tackle area, there was a sudden change. The spine of the Saracens side – an inventive full-back in Alex Goode, an Indian summer-warmed outside-half in Glen Jackson, a crafty scrum-half in Neil de Kock, a high-class footballing No 8 in Ernst Joubert and Brits – coalesced in a completely fresh approach that damned nearly brought them a first league title.

So what happened? Goode, De Kock, Joubert and Brits are still in place, but the Watford-based club no longer trip the light fantastic. They are still hellishly difficult to beat, but they rarely send the spirit soaring. Brits puts it down to a couple of factors: a subtle difference in the way referees operate in 2012 as opposed to 2010 – he believes it is significantly easier to play a more open running style of rugby in the southern hemisphere under Super 15 law interpretations – allied to the fact that the analysts at rival clubs slowly worked out a way of cramping the style of the new, free-flowing Sarries.

"People learnt how to play against us, how to stop us doing what we were doing," he says. "So what we do now is about discipline and control and structure. It may not be flash, but we're winning games. If you're asking me if I'd prefer to play unstructured rugby, the answer is yes: if I had my way, the ball would never be kicked. But the team is always bigger and more important than the individual and this is a sacrifice I'm prepared to make."

Which is not to say that at some point today, in the molten heat of a semi-final between two clubs who bridle at the very thought of each other, he will not pull a rabbit from his scrum-hat.

Discretion may be the better part of valour, but on balance – and as he says, balance is everything – Brits prefers the "nothing ventured, nothing gained" theory of life.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?