Brits hoping to spoil the party for Leinster
Published 13/01/2011 | 05:00
TWO exiled South Africans will come face to face this Saturday and, when the first scrum is called, referee Roman Poite will do well to emit his "pause" instruction before these two 100kg hookers lock in violent front-row embrace.
And it may be just as difficult to separate the pair later on in the Dublin dusk.
The visiting Schalk Brits, who is due to get married in South Africa later this month, celebrates his stag night after Heineken Cup formalities are done and dusted and bruised bodies are partially healed.
Leinster's Richardt Strauss, who himself got engaged this week, has been invited to tag along.
"There will definitely be a big Saturday," said Brits, one of those rare breed of modern professional who gladly proffer their telephone number -- then insist you call them any time.
But then this is a guy who spent much of his formative years in South Africa's surfing haven of Mossel Bay in Western Province, is a qualified accountant and knows when to switch on and off. Heck, he even confesses to a love of Jameson!
"Rugby-wise it's going to be a toughie at the RDS but afterwards I'm a bit scared," he smiled, as he wondered what fiendish plans best man and back-row team-mate Ernst Joubert has up his sleeve.
"With these guys taking hold of me it may be a rough night. Hey, and if some of the Irish lads want to come out for a beer, it isn't a closed event. The more the merrier I say!"
Such is the mutual respect between Brits and Strauss, you can virtually guarantee they will clink glasses on Saturday night. Aside from sharing a nationality and position, they have often clashed at Currie Cup level, forged experiences in the front-row and both espouse their love for a certain bald-headed Irish hero of recent vintage.
"Richardt was always a great opponent when he played for the Cheetahs," said Brits. "Whenever we met, it was always a tough game and he's a great hooker. That's why Leinster signed him and what a great signing he's been. I'm glad he's turned out so well and hopefully he can keep that progression going."
The compliment is effusively repaid. "Schalk's a real good player," enthused Strauss. "He reads the game quite well. He's one guy we'll have to keep our eyes on through the game.
"One second you take your eyes off him and somehow he'll get through somewhere. We always say to attend to him like you would a very strong back, like a centre, because he's got great ball skills and speed and he'll exploit any weakness in our defence."
Shane Jennings this week lauded Strauss' running lines and quality at the breakdown; as such, he is a mirror image of Brits. Indeed, Strauss won his World Cup underage medal as a flanker, his virtual immovable frame at the collision and ball-playing bravado remain a lasting legacy.
Brits used to dovetail between No 2 and No 8 under Rassie Erasmus at the Stormers; such versatility arguably hampered his international ambitions, his three caps a pitiful return, not helped by former coach Jake White's public belittling of the player.
"I was a hooker since the age of 12," he explained. "Rassie had this idea that I could do both, he just wanted to keep me on the pitch as long as possible, starting at either position then switching later on.
"At Saracens, I cover the back-row a lot. Teams normally just play to my strengths, if that makes sense. But that's not always appreciated back home at provincial level. Some coaches want a certain type of hooker although sometimes you're just following instructions."
He's a free-spirited type and that is reflected in his play; were it not for set-pieces, he could be easily mistaken for an inside-centre (YouTube some of his tries).
"He's so far better than anything else in England, it's scary," said Brendan Venter, Saracens' recently departed head coach. "There's no hooker in the world who can do what he can do. He's faster and wiser than anyone else and he's aggressive. There's nothing I could say about him that's negative."
Little wonder that a certain Keith Gerard Mallinson Wood -- as well as the incomparable maestro Uli Schmidt -- remain his idols.
"I just met Keith the other night," said Brits. "When I grew up I looked up to him, I modelled my game on his. He will always be a legend, he's a great guy and just an awesome player."
So too for Strauss. "When I finally moved into the hooker's position at the age of 20, I was already looking at the likes of Keith Wood for inspiration."
Ultimately, both men would see their international ambitions stymied at home.
Strauss, a designated "Special Project" player who can switch allegiance via residency, could be an Irish international in two summers' time, particularly so given the current rate of attrition in that sector.
"There is nothing for me to prove to them back home," he said. "It is more about me trying to prove myself in Ireland and get the respect of the people over here. I have made the change. It is something I have committed to."
Brits' limited number of caps has relegated that part of his career to the history books, to which he seems relatively sanguine.
"It's great to be appreciated," he said. "Sometimes with the game I played in South Africa, you're not always appreciated. You're always pushing for the national side but there's always politics. Now I'm playing great rugby and I've a side who appreciates me and I appreciate them."
His only complaint is the weather and Saturday's early kick-off time. With the teams set to be showered before 4.0, there is plenty of time for the carnage in Dublin's pubs and clubs to emulate that on the field of play.
"I haven't been in Dublin yet but I've heard it's a dangerous place," he said. "I was so unhappy when I heard the kick-off, I thought maybe 5.0 and then I'd only have five hours or so with the boys. But 1.30? I'm scared my friend."
It will be an unusual emotion for this fearsome competitor.