Remarkable story of World Cup-title chasing Boks
CAPE TOWN – If Saturday night in Salta was a celebration of the Springboks, then this week's team announcement for Saturday's Test against Argentina in Pretoria was one of absolute joy about two of the most popular South African rugby players in the last decade.
I am talking about veteran Schalk Brits, who at 38 is the second-oldest player to captain the Springboks, and Scarra Ntubeni, who will replace Brits sometime early Saturday evening.
Brits last started for the Springboks in 2008 and Ntubeni has had to wait six years to go from a squad call-up to be in the match-day 23.
The match is also significant for Springbok captain Siya Kolisi's return after injury-enforced absence.
Kolisi will captain the Springboks at the World Cup, coach Rassie Erasmus says. Ntubeni is unlikely to go to the World Cup unless there is an injury to the squad.
It is also poignant that Kolisi is there when his big mate Ntubeni finally gets to make an on-field contribution in a Springbok Test jersey.
I haven't engaged with a more likeable and enjoyable rugby player than Ntubeni. I've been fortunate to host a few rugby panel discussions and he’s always been a treat in his articulation, application and comfort in talking about rugby and life. He’s a wonderful rugby player.
He is a bloke that could easily be bitter that he has remained in the Springbok wilderness for the past six years. Injuries haven't helped his cause and when Siya got to 100 Super Rugby matches, Ntubeni got to 50. The two started together, so the journey for Ntubeni has had a lot of injury scarring. There would also have been the emotional angst that his time had come and gone over the past six years.
It would have been a natural consequence for any player to react with resentment. Not Ntubeni. He took on the role of mentor to the youngsters and of teammate and team man when relegated to a secondary role at the Stormers.
Not once did he scream foul, attack coaches, selections or a rugby system. He just got on with it and on Saturday he will finally have his reward. What a moment it will be. He may not play a Test beyond Saturday but this is a case of one being as powerful as one hundred.
Brits, in 2008, left for English club Saracens after 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White made it clear he didn't rate him ahead of John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis and a host of other hookers in this country.
Brits had played 10 Tests for South Africa, but such was his impact in England's Premier Division and Europe that had he never played for the Springboks, he'd probably have close to 100 Tests for England.
Brits revelled in playing for Saracens and seemed to get younger each season. He made no secret of his affection for Saracens and his joy in playing in England, but he always spoke with conviction about being South African and the Springboks.
He retired at the end of the 2018 Saracens season, victorious and with more silverware. Somehow, Erasmus managed to persuade him to put on hold his retirement for a year and play a coach/mentor/player role in the 2019 World Cup campaign.
Brits agreed only on the basis that he plays Super Rugby and that his form warrants inclusion. The player was signed for the Bulls and this year he has played with the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old and with the experience and class of a matured 38-year-old.
Now, a decade after he got given the Bok No 2 Test jersey, he gets to wear it again. It's a story as remarkable as Ntubeni's in a season that may prove to be equally remarkable for the World Cup-title chasing Springboks.@mark_keohane
Mark Keohane is an award-winning sports journalist, and head of sport at Independent Media