LONDON – Former Bok scrumhalf Neil de Kock will play his 263rd game for Saracens and the last match of his professional career when the London-based club faces Bristol in the Premiership at Allianz Park on Saturday
De Kock, 38, was born in Cape Town and went on to attend The Settlers High School in Bellville before becoming a Matie at Stellenbosch University before embarking on an illustrious career which spanned 18 season.
He made his senior debut for Western Province in 2000, earning 52 caps in Currie Cup and other local domestic competitions in the following years. The wily scrumhalf played 49 times for the Stormers in Super Rugby between 2001 and 2006, gaining national recognition as early as 2001, against Italy in Port Elizabeth.
A frustrating period followed for the Boks, as he thwarted by a combination of injury and a puzzling rotation policy with Bolla Conradie, with whom he had to share the Stormers and Bok No. 9 jersey.
He gained a total of 10 Bok caps, including three in the former Tri-Nations and four in the Rugby World Cup 2003 in Australia. By 2006, he realised that SA Rugby's selection policies were not going to favour him and he moved to England, signing for Saracens, who were then a club showing signs of potential.
Saracens had finally made it into the knock-out stage of the competition after years of mediocrity by their current standards, but they had not won any national or European honours yet. Starting back in 1996, with the new owner, Nigel Wray at the helm, a number of foreign players including Francois Pienaar and Michael Lynagh were recruited. The strong SA connection has continued, with the likes of hooker Schalk Brits, flank Michael Rhodes and most recently Bok flank Schalk Burger signing for the club.
Former Bok centre and now a consultant to the Springboks in 2017, Brendan Venter also had a successful, if at times controversial, spell with the club as a coach. He worked under Edward Griffith, who had worked for SA Rugby and consulted with Francois Pienaar's for the latter's autobiography. When De Kock arrived, he settled into his new club and has been a loyal servant ever since.
“This club has given me so much. I’ve had such a brilliant time at this club and I would have had three children while being involved with this club. There is no place I would rather finish my career," De Kock said.
“My roots are firmly embedded here and I owe a lot to Nigel Wray, to the coaches and to the club itself. The 11 years I’ve been playing rugby here I’ve probably played with 100 guys and it has been fantastic times. To keep contact with those guys for the next two decades would be brilliant.”
By 2010, he was vying for the scrumhalf berth with former All Black Justin Marshall. De Kock played in Saracens first-ever Premiership final, against Premiership giants, Leicester, at Twickenham, a game not so fondly remembered by the Saracens faithful who witnessed it. Sarries suffered a narrow defeat, but returned the following year to win the final against the same opposition.
“One game that does stand out is the 2011 Premiership victory. On the back of the heart-breaking loss to Leicester the previous year we managed to scrape through and to win it. That will stand out to me as my fondest memory albeit that we won it last year," De Kock said.
“The first Premiership trophy was very special because a lot of people doubted us at the time saying we were a flash-in-the-pan and that it won’t last. I’m just delighted we proved the critics wrong."
“I came here in 2006 and if you look at how we performed from then until now, I think we have become a consistent top-four performer," the halfback added. "We are there or thereabouts in Europe, we are making the play-offs and since 2009 when Brendan Venter took over with Edward Griffiths, that marked a dramatic change in the club.
“I think we created a culture within the club that everybody bought in to and still do. One of incredible work-rate and treating everybody really well and that has stood the club in good stead.”
Saracens went on to win their first-ever European title in 2016, grinding out a tryless 21-9 Rugby Champions Cup final victory over Racing 92 to completea rare domestic and European double after beating Exeter Chiefs in the Premeirship two weeks earlier.
Saracens are still in contention for the same double honour they achieved last year, but for once in a team game, Saturday belongs to the veteran from Cape Town.