It is, in the end, a question of class.
Not class in the way certain unreconstructed snobs at Twickers might understand it – the Nigels and Ruperts and hyphenated cravats who mourn the day the sport went professional and yearn for an age when team talks were conducted in Latin hexameters and a chap made his own way to the ground with the help of a chauffeur – but class in its wider, more colloquial sense. When Ernst Joubert plays rugby, he does it in the easy, unhurried manner of a man with an instinctive understanding of the dynamics of a contest and complete confidence in his own ability.
While there is more to Joubert than airs and graces, there is undeniably a touch of the South African rugby aristocrat about him. As a teenager, he captained the Western Province team at the annual Craven Week tournament – by some distance the most celebrated domestic youth competition in the world game – and played for Stellenbosch University as an undergraduate. He can list Newlands, the evocative old stadium in Cape Town, and Ellis Park, that awe-inspiring sporting cathedral in Johannesburg, among his home grounds. Hell, he can even claim Springbok ancestry.
His grandfather, the Transvaal flanker Piet Malan, played a single Test at the Crusader Ground in Port Elizabeth in 1949. Not any old Test, mark you, but a game that condemned the All Blacks to a 4-0 series defeat: a whitewash that shook New Zealand rugby to its very core. Some of the finest forwards in Bokke history were in the green-shirted pack that day, including the great No 8 Hennie Muller, "Die Windhond". To operate alongside Muller in the back row was the rugby equivalent of sharing the crease with Bradman, and must have been no end of fun; indeed, there is a wonderful photograph of Malan and Muller hunting their opponents in tandem off a scrum that appears to show the new cap grinning from ear to ear.
"He's in his nineties now," says Joubert, "and he's still completely clear-minded. My grandfather has always been a big figure in my life – for any South African with a love of rugby, it's quite something to have a Springbok in the family – and he continues to follow the game with a keen interest. He's a regular at Ellis Park, even now."
Muller himself might have been proud of the blinding tries Joubert scored from No 8 for Saracens in last season's Premiership final against Leicester, one in each half, both from distance down the left touchline. Yet the Midlanders still found a way to win, and the nature of their stoppage-time victory – Dan Hipkiss's decisive scuttle to the line had as much to do with opposition carelessness as with his own team's precision – was painful in the extreme. This afternoon, the two sides meet again in pursuit of the self-same prize. How are the emotions, 12 months on?
"I've lost two finals in my life: the first back in South Africa, when we were 20-6 up and went down 22-20, and the second at Twickenham a year ago," Joubert says with a sorrowful shake of the head. "It's hard when you lose that way. I think it's much easier when you know you've been totally outplayed, when you can put up your hand and admit you were beaten by opponents performing at a different level. We haven't made a big fuss about what happened last season in preparing for this game, but I can't sit here and make out it's not in the back of our minds. We needed to win one ball from a restart to win the title, and we didn't do it. That kind of thing tends to live with you."
Regrets? Joubert has had a few. After a successful run in age-group rugby, he signed his first professional contract with Western Province as a 23-year-old, played a season of Currie Cup rugby with Boland and then headed for the high veld, where the people in Johannesburg saw him as a Springbok in the making. "In my first week there, I tore the muscles in my groin," he recalls. "Eighteen months and three operations later, I returned to find myself behind a whole lot of new guys who had come through while I was laid up doing nothing. I'd always dreamt of playing for the Boks, but I think I knew then that it wouldn't happen."
Rugby life in Jo'burg was anything but sweetness and light. "It might seem a controversial point of view, but there were times during my stay there when I felt we were completely mismanaged," he says. "It was widely thought that we simply didn't have the players to succeed, but if things had been better run back in 2007, we'd have developed into a formidable team. The last game I played there was in '09 against the British and Irish Lions, who taught us a real lesson. Our coach had been sacked the week before and they stuck me on the bench because they knew I was leaving. It wasn't a great occasion, if I'm honest."
Joubert was one of a raft of South Africans who had signed for Saracens that spring and he knew he was leaving the frying pan for the fire. "There was a high degree of scepticism from people in England about our recruitment policy at that point," he recalls. "There was a lot of stuff said and written about it being a takeover, even about Saracens considering a change of name to reflect the South African influence in the squad. It was all rubbish. We were coming as a bunch of friends, determined to win trophies for the club and to make a name for ourselves. When people look now at what we've been building here over the last two seasons, there's a greater understanding of what we're about.
"Playing here is incredibly enjoyable. We have a lot of strong individuals in the group who know exactly what they want, and we're given all the freedom we could wish for from coaches who are more interested in a working partnership than a dictatorship. I'd use the word 'democracy' to describe our system. After last year's final, I made a comment about the closeness of the relationships we'd developed. We're even more close-knit now, after a second season together. The downside is that the jokes are even more brutal. The place exists on sarcasm."
What it no longer exists on, it seems, is the kind of free-flowing rugby that suddenly flowered in the final third of last season. Saracens have not dried up on the try-scoring front – quite the opposite, as their recent Premiership victory over Gloucester illustrated – but they are not tripping the light fantastic in the way they were a year ago. Is this a cause of concern for Joubert? Apparently not.
"We won 11 games straight off at the start of last season by playing boring rugby," he says, candidly. "Then the Super 14 started down in the southern hemisphere, the refereeing of the breakdown changed up here and it was a different ball game. This season, we were still throwing it around in our Heineken Cup pool matches, even though things had changed again to allow more of a contest in the tackle area. What happened? We lost matches. I've been in plenty of teams down the years where we've moved the ball around all afternoon and spent the evening trying to work out how we'd been beaten. The key factor is the ruck and how individual referees control what's happening there. The thing that interests me most is winning, so the only sensible way forward is to be entirely pragmatic."
Which leads us to one last question, not unrelated to pragmatism. Might he shift international allegiance and go in search of an England cap once he qualifies on residency grounds this time next year? "I wouldn't rule it out for a second," he replies. "Of course I'd play for England, if they wanted me. The experience of playing Test rugby would be something to savour and I wouldn't be the first South African to follow that route."
Three months shy of his 32nd birthday, he has little in the way of time to spare. But English rugby is not particularly rich in No 8 resources, and if Saracens can find a way of unleashing their rather classy import this afternoon in the way they unleashed him 12 months ago, Joubert's late attempt to follow his grandfather on to the grandest stage will be up and running.Reuse content