Rugby

Springboks' Schalk Brits saves best for last in rugby career

AP

Schalk Brits was late for the pre-match news conference, leading to a chuckle from South Africa assistant coach Mzwandile Stick.

Stick had already answered a couple of questions by the time Brits barged in with a huge grin across his face, the air of a mischievous schoolboy about him.

A 38-year-old schoolboy.

“He’s our team captain. He’s always late. Always late,” Stick said, tutting.

Stick, who was jokingly playing the role of disapproving schoolmaster, is four years younger than Brits, by the way.

At 38, Brits is the second-oldest Springboks player at a World Cup. He’ll also be the second-oldest player to captain South Africa when he leads the team against Namibia at the Rugby World Cup on Saturday while regular skipper Siya Kolisi gets a rest and a seat on the bench.

A lot has happened late for Brits, and the most enjoyable times of his 17-year pro rugby career appear to be right now, right at the end.

Brits had retired from all rugby and was holidaying on the Spanish island of Ibiza last year — kicking back and sipping cocktails, he said — when the cellphone rang. It was new Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus and he wanted to know if Brits wanted to play for the Boks again.

Brits hadn’t played a test in three years. He was closer to 40 than 30. He even had a job lined up and a course at Cambridge University to prepare him for life after rugby. Everything was decided.

And yet the answer to Erasmus’ question was obvious, at least to Brits.

“It was quite easy, to be honest. To represent your country is a massive honor and privilege,” Brits said. “I can always do an 8-5 job … but I can’t always play.”

Brits’ reply was a big yes. Luckily, the company that had already employed him was totally understanding of his decision.

The company’s response to the unexpected development, Brits said, was: “if you start working at 37 or 38, it doesn’t make a difference. So, go live your dream and we’ll see you here later.”

“For me, so far, it’s the best decision,” Brits said.

Now, Brits gets to captain the Springboks at a World Cup a year after he’d decided to retire.

And there’s another late surprise.

Brits, normally a hooker, will start at No. 8 against the Namibians in an unexpected move engineered by Erasmus to give him a little more space to rest his big back-row forwards ahead of the next game against Italy, a crucial one for the Springboks’ quarterfinal hopes.

Erasmus said he hopes Brits at No. 8 — even at his age — gives the Boks a lot more speed across the field against a Namibia team that likes to play fast, open rugby. Brits has experience in the back row although he last played at No. 8 in Super Rugby a decade ago. But he’s super versatile and still quick for a front-rower.

He’s also enthusiastic to the point of infectious and, possibly as important to the Boks, off the field as on it.

The “joker” of the squad, according to Stick, Brits will have been one of the guys to help lift the players who were involved in the 23-13 loss to New Zealand last weekend.

“It was quite nice to see that I could fit in with these younger players,” he said. “I still believe we can do wonders in this World Cup. We’re a group that’s learning and learning quickly.”

And Brits is happy to keep learning, even if his rugby career is a matter of weeks away from the end. Because you’re never too old to learn. Or to play for the Springboks.

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