LONDON - When he retires at the end of this season, Schalk Brits deserves to be acclaimed as the greatest import in the history of the Premiership. He is that good.
On Saturday, the South African hooker once again illuminated the grand stage at Twickenham, on behalf of Saracens. During the European champions’ seven-try first-half onslaught which reduced Northampton to a state of disarray, Brits was a class apart, in the midst of a high-class team effort which brought a 55-24 win.
His performance was a staggering exhibition of multi-purpose skills. One burst out of defence and outrageously deft, one-handed off-load to Vincent Koch was enough on its own to show that he is still a remarkable player at the age of 36, but there was so much more besides.
He scored a try, made another and romped around HQ like a fresh rookie, leaving Saints flailing in his slipstream.
Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby, called Brits ‘Peter Pan’ after this latest rolling-back-the-years display — knowing that the club have been lucky to gain so much from a player who was criminally ignored by the Springboks until the latter stages of his career. It was the same Brits — more or less — as the one who inspired his side to victory in the 2011 Premiership final, with one of the greatest one-man shows witnessed at the national stadium.
This column cannot recall a foreign player who has had more of a sustained impact in the English game. There have been countless iconic imports over the years, but Brits trumps the lot.
He has been an influential figure in a team who have built a dynasty, with three league titles and two European triumphs. He has also been a mould-breaker, as a player who has operated far beyond the normal boundaries of his position. Soon after his arrival on these shores, this observer labelled Brits ‘half a team in one man’ and that view still applies.
"I wish I could do some of that stuff," said England captain Dylan Hartley on Saturday, when asked about his opposite number.
Some remarkable overseas players have made their mark in these parts in the professional era. Rating and ranking them is entirely subjective, so this column would place Pat Lam, Seilala Mapusua, Jacques Burger and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe in the pantheon, too, but with Brits at the top.
How satisfying to see a glimpse of the old Gloucester spirit and fervour on Friday night. That’s how it should be at Kingsholm — packed, passionate and awash with tribal energy and pride.
The West Country club’s mediocrity in recent years has been a jarring feature of the domestic landscape. Taking the scalp of champions Exeter should be a catalyst for revival. New head coach Johan Ackermann and Ed Slater — an addition to the pack — have the look of perfect fits, in the trademark Gloucester mould. Most importantly, after the sudden, demoralising pre-season exit of Jonny May, the scenes in the home dressing-room after a dramatic late victory suggest there is unity and renewed hope in the Cherry and White ranks.
It wasn’t quite the start that league officials would have hoped for. The two South African teams who have joined the Pro14 — Southern Kings and the Cheetahs — shipped 99 points between them on their opening forays into the Celtic-Italian competition. Give it time. They will be different beasts in their own territory and conditions. Trips to Llanelli and Belfast, to face the champion Scarlets and Ulster, represented a brutal introduction after hasty preparations. Meanwhile, in Cardiff, Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh regime began with a first away win over the Blues since 2012. He was destined to raise standards — and it has started.