When players go one-on-one
We all enjoy pointing out hypocrisy and laugh at the ironic situations others find themselves in. Only to turn around and step knee-deep into it.
I had a taste of this recently.
Two European teams (Saracens and Montpellier), with a strong South African flavour, won the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup this past season.
For those unfamiliar with these competitions, it is rugby's version of the UEFA Champions league.
In light of this, I though it is a good idea to get fellow players to write a piece on some of the South African players at Saracens and Montpellier.
It will be something different to get insight from current players on each other.
This would probably shine a light on the type of people these guys are and why they so successful.
Seeing that Jake White is the coach at Montpellier, the intro of the article would have revolved around a statement he made a few seasons ago, when he was coaching the Brumbies in Australia.
In essence White said that South Africans will run through a wall without asking questions. Whereas Aussies want to know why.
"They are very bright guys in Australia, they won't just do [what they are told], they want to know why they are doing it and, if they agree, they will do it.
"Whereas in South Africa, it's very much if you're the coach and you want it, then we'll just do it like that."
You can't help but see irony's hand in the fact that White then got 10 South Africans in at Montpellier to help them to the club's most successful season ever.
And that would have been the crux from which I would have launched the player-on-player pieces.
Irony had to play his hand once more. A kind of double-hustle if you like.
In the process of trying to get all the pieces together, I once again realized how difficult it is to get a squad of strong-willed, warrior men to work together. Never mind successful.
In trying to point out the irony of White's statement, I quickly realized once again why he is so successful.
Its no surprise then that the guys that did respond are typically the ones that are in leadership roles wherever they may play.
Reliability stretches across all walks of life.
Personally I want to thank the boys that did write something for us.
It says as much about them as the guys they write about.
Petrus du Plessis by Jacques Burger (Namibian Captain/Saracens)
Petrus du Plessis is not your conventional rugby player. He's a qualified Physiotherapist, an actor and an electric guitarist that learned each and every Metallica song by ear!
No surprise then that he took a rather different course to becoming arguably the best tighthead prop in Europe. After spending a brief time in Stellenbosch after school, "Parra" decided to go work in Liverpool. He played for a small club called St Helens and his career from there comprised of second division teams like Orrel, Sedgeway Park and Nottingham.
Until a SOS for tighthead props was sent by Saracens mid season in 2010. A year later he was a Premiership champion with Saracens – having been the foundation from which a strong set-piece to launch the game plan was built.
It's remarkable how year upon year he is part of a scrum that carves through "bigger" name front rows. Yet his "status" as a big name No.3 stays as unassuming as his career path to get to Saracens. Saracens keep signing tightheads, yet at the end of each season Parra is the first choice cornerstone of the scrum.
I know for a fact that each and every front row forward that has played with him, will choose him ahead of any other No.3 when it comes to scrum time. Respect from your fellow player!
And knowing Parra, that is more than enough.
Bismark du Plessis by Jannie du Plessis (Sharks/Springboks/Montpellier)
France is a massive culture shock for anyone who has never been outside of an English speaking country. Luckily rugby stays the same regardless of where you are in the world.
In the same way that rugby stays the same Bismarck's performances on the field stayed the same.
He played his first game four days after setting foot in France and in an ominous sign for opposition teams he scored his first try 12 minutes after he came on in the second half.
That was just the start he needed.
At the end of the season he then also finished as one of the top try scorers in the team with 12 tries in 25 games, which is a great strikerate for a tight forward.
He showed that he is a versatile player, adapting very quickly to the change in the type of rugby that is played in the Northern Hemisphere. There is much higher focus on the set pieces and Bissie was integral part of the success of the scrum being used as a attacking weapon.
Montpelier was one of the top teams in penalties won at scrum time. His accurate line-out throwing also helped because quite a few of his tries came off line-out drives.
However, Bismarck's biggest contribution was outside of the setpiece. Here his formidable capability at the ruck came into play. He got the most breakdown steals of everyone.
Having confidence makes you play better and Bissie carried like the "proverbial" freight train always getting go-forward and moment for the team. Bissie had a great season at the end of a long time playing – which started in January 2015 – without any break.
He also played some of his best games in pressure matches that culminated in Montpellier winning their first trophy ever in the European Challenge Cup.
Unfortunately we lost to a very "begeesterde" Toulon team in the semifinals of the Top14.
So no fairytale ending, but it makes the next season one to look forward to – as Bismarck will want to win the French Championship
Robert Ebersohn by Francois Uys (Free-state – Most line-out takes in Super Rugby this season -73)
I first met Robert when he was in his first year out of school. I still remember it simply because before me stood this young man clearly destined to be a special rugby player and good friend.
What made him so great to watch and play with was the fact that he was constantly seen as 'too small', but every time he would just laugh it off and dominate every facet of the game which he plays with all his heart.
And he would constantly be the hardest worker on and off the field.
Until this day I still believe he would mean the world to a Springbok team, simply because he has an excellent attitude and more than capable leadership abilities.
And to me he was lost to SA rugby way too soon.
But still his best qualities have to be his humility and calmness.
He is definitely the best player I've played with and a fantastic person!
Schalk Brits by Ernst Joubert (Saracens/Lions)
When we played Maties Under-20 the Maties senior coach told Schalla that if he moved to centre he would put him in the first team immediately.
Luckily he declined. Years later Schalla would redefine the way hookers played.
A forward that can outstep and outsmart a back. Now that is special.
And yes I am talking about a tight forward.
Naturally so talented it is sickening (privileges of an only child).
Hard working and determined to succeed.
Schalla's best traits as a rugby player? Definitely off the field!
He is a person that is painfully modest and humble. A friend that will go out of his way to make your life easier. No call can be too late or too early. A true friend and gentleman.
I quote Steve Borthwick: "If you are not focussed and prepared before the game you will not have a good game, except if you're Schalk."
And that is the best description of Schalla. A fun guy, but once he puts his boots on that field he becomes a different animal!
Neil de Kock by Schalk Brits (Saracens/Stormers/Springboks)
The ultimate ever-ready battery!!!
He just never stops giving, You would think I am just talking about his amazing attributes on the pitch but he gives even more off the pitch.
Neil has been a mentor, friend and teammate since we played together at the Stormers and Western Province.
He's the ultimate team man.
I remember being a student at Stellenbosch university and watching the Stormers play against the Waratahs in Sydney. The Stormers had a couple of injuries and they were down and out, they moved Neil to wing as there was no one left on the bench.
No one gave the Stormers a chance.
Out of nowhere Kocky got the ball on the wing and scored a truly amazing try and the Stormers won.
He kicks a box kick like no one else, he manages the pace of play as the game dictates it. It just feels like he always makes the right decision.
Lastly he tackles like a flank, that's probably why he's had more concussions than I've got fingers.
In short he's a legend!!
Brad Barritt by Chris Wyles (Saracens and United States)
Brad Barritt is an absolute rock.
Not only because he is the core of our team, but mainly because I literally think he is made out of the stuff.
Whether he is making 15 brutal tackles a game, or busting through the advantage line time and time again he is a player that motivates others by action.
As a captain he speaks articulately, but for me there are plenty of people that can do that. The special thing about Brad is that he consistently backs up his words through his physicality and performances on the pitch.
He is one of those guys that if you look around and you know that he's next to you, you take a breath and think: 'Okay, here we go, time to get stuck in'.
As a bloke he is fiercely loyal and a great friend. We've had some amazing memories together and I feel fortunate to have shared those moments with him.
Dimitri Catrakilis by Nic Groom (Stormers/South Africa A)
Over the many games that I've played alongside Dim, it has always been his knack to perform on the big stage that makes him stand out from the rest.
Over five years we won four trophies together and a handful of Super Rugby conference cups. I can't seem to remember him missing a kick in all of those finals. Those valuable points from the tee were often the difference in the end.
There's a line in a Drake song (a favourite amongst Dimmy's questionable taste in music) which asks the question: "Does the spotlight makes you nervous?".
I think in his career so far he has answered this question with a resounding no.
His ability to thrive under pressure in finals and big games is uncanny. Winning trophies and having a kicking percentage of over 90 percent over consecutive seasons doesn't just happen though.
Dim has one of the strongest work ethics. There are about 58 balls and a couple of tees squeezed into his boot at all times, as he practices literally every day.
Even on his off days he would head down to False Bay club for a kick. Sometimes he would go after training, often by himself practicing for those big moments.
Off the field he is a super relaxed guy and always keen for a laugh. He is focused, selfless and a great team man, never one to talk badly about anyone.
I'm probably biased but I'm going to go ahead and say he is the best kicker of the rugby ball in the world.
With that being said, he still remains incredibly humble and driven. I'm sure anyone who knows him will echo the above.
Jannie du Plessis by Willem Alberts (Sharks/Springboks/Lions)
It is an honour and privilege to say a few words about the underrated anchorman of the Springbok scrum over the past couple of seasons.
Jannie du Plessis was maybe not always a favourite among opponents and some fans. However, I need to add that there are some players that you come across in your career whose talent, hard work and value can only really be appreciated if you have played with them.
I see Jannie as one of those.
I played against Jannie when he was with the Cheetahs and Sharks, and joined him at the Sharks in 2010 – a very memorable season for myself and the team.
Thereafter we were roomies at the Sharks and the Springboks on every tour, until 2015.
My hat goes off to Jannie in that he had to work hard to earn respect from players, coaches and opponents. He knew he wasn't the most talented player, but hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard.
Jannie is a true example of that. The mere fact that he became a medical doctor, while he playing for the Cheetahs and later the Springboks, just amplifies the point. He
had to overcome childhood hardships and needed a 'never back down' attitude to make it in life – and that is exactly what he did. He is a big family man and because of everything they had to endure in their lives. I believe this is why he likes to play with his brother and for them to look out for each other.
Jannie is a great friend and we shared many great memories, especially on tour.
He is a student of the game and enjoys to think about things that other players just take for granted. He always try to give more to the team that he takes, sometimes unorthodox but always with the greater goal of the team in mind.
I miss the chats before a game with Jannie, when he wrote in his journal before games or when he rattled his leg or clicked his pen in team meetings, when he was stressed and when he gathered with "Bissie" and "Beast" to say a prayer before each game. I miss the beers after a tough game and to hear Jannie's thoughts about what went right and what went wrong.
I also need to say that Jannie is a proud product of Grey College in Bloemfontein, and that his wife still needs to bake him cupcakes with the Grey badge on it.
To a hard worker, genial person and great rugby player, I salute you.
Jacques Burger by Neil de Kock (Springboks/Stormers/Saracens)
I never knew Jacques or "Kwagga" personally. Nor much about him professionally for that matter, until he arrived at Saracens in 2010.
Suffice to say , it didn't take very long to work out that 'what you see is what you get' with him.
By that I mean someone, who on the pitch , has no regard for his own safety or for anybody else's for that matter.
The physicality, commitment and sacrifice he portrayed was awe inspiring.
His ability to endure horrific injuries and his perseverance to get himself fit and fixed up to add value to a team and a group he loves was incredibly inspiring.
A man who would give no inch on a rugby field and yet be someone who would have so much to give to everyone off the pitch. He was/is instrumental in driving and maintaining the 'culture' we often talk about and are very protective about at Saracens.
The old saying that comes to mind, is the one about who you would take to war with you.
Jacques is definitely one of those guys – a brilliant human being who will be massively missed but also remembered for the enormous contribution he brought to the club both on and off the pitch.
Ernst Joubert by Ethienne Reynecke (Lions, Saracens, Stormers, Connacht and Pau )
If rugby was a comic book, then Ernst Joubert would be your typical Captain America, Cyclops or Optimus Prime.
The one that's naturally the leader without trying. They just are.
Ernst has captained every single team he has ever represented. From high school, Paul Roos, to the Lions and Saracens.
That in it's own should tell you enough about the man.
In case you might get the image of a stern, hard man leading from the front, it's the opposite. Although laid-back and easy off the pitch, people immediately recognize his leadership qualities.
Add to that a fierce loyalty and a street-wise intellect, and you get a man that earns everyone's trust easily on and off the pitch.
As a player he was perfect line-out loose forward. Not only a main jumping option, he also created havoc to opposition line-outs.
He's speed enabled him to be an extra wing in the outside channels. Saracens exploited this to great effect in their gameplan and he created and scored many a try.
Ernst was part of the building foundation towards success at Saracens and played more than 200 games for them.
Although retiring before the recent European Champions Cup Final, Saracens deemed him so important to the club's success that they flew him back from South Africa to be part of that weekend and share in European Cup glory.
In short, Ernst was a great rugby player. But he's an even better human being.
By Ethienne Reynecke
* Ethienne Reynecke is a decorated hooker who played for, amongst others, the Lions, Stormers, Saracens, Connacht and Pau – which has seen him feature in 160-odd first-class matches.