DURBAN – John Smit will tell you how wide-eyed he was when he arrived at the Sharks as a 19-year-old fresh out of Pretoria Boys’ High. He was star-struck by what he called “the rock stars”, the likes of Andre Joubert, Gary Teichmann, Henry Honiball, Cabous van der Westhuizen, Mark Andrews, Dick Muir, Adrian Garvey and Ollie le Roux.
That raft of seasoned veterans were around the age of 30, and it was under that umbrella of vast experience that Smit did his apprenticeship as a professional rugby player.
Let’s cut to the end of Smit’s distinguished career. Was he teaching the ropes to youngsters at the Sharks? Sadly not. He was teaching the dark art of front row play to the emerging talent at Saracens, in London. To put a finer point on it, he schooled a young Jamie George, now the starting hooker for England.
This is hardly a criticism of Smit who, after his retirement, lamented the export of South Africa’s intellectual capital to Europe. It is just the reality of how player movement has evolved in our rugby since the dawn of professionalism in 1996.
Since then, the rand has been unable to compete against the pound and the euro, and this has meant an annual exodus of epidemic proportions. And those who are leaving are increasingly younger - some go straight from Craven Week.
The result is that there are precious few masters left in SA rugby to conduct the apprenticeships, and it is when you see the impact veterans Schalk Brits and Duane Vermeulen have made at the Bulls on their return from Europe that you realise the extent of the problem, the team blowout against the Chiefs notwithstanding.
The pair have been nothing short of phenomenal, in terms of form on the pitch and the influence they have had on team culture. They were good players when they left for England and France respectively, and are even better players on their return, having themselves learned from different rugby cultures.
We are seeing now why esteemed British rugby writer Stephen Jones of London’s Sunday Times described Brits as “the most amazing rugby player I have ever seen” at the conclusion of Brits’s nine-year career at Saracens.
Jones wrote: “I have no doubt about this. He is the best player I have seen. How many players have you seen that can cut the angles so silkily, who puts players through gaps with his passes, or surges through gaps himself onto passes, stands back to take high kicks and hardly ever runs them back without interest?
Or who often stands in the open-side flank position to lead the defensive line at rare pace, has a vast range of skills, understands the game better than most flyhalves, and then hooks in the scrum. This is maestro stuff. It’s one man making history.”
Vermeulen is held in similar regard by those who have played with and against him. At the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the Boks had an internal award (a hunting knife) for the player who made the biggest contribution to defence.
Vermeulen, nicknamed “The Rock” at that time by his teammates, won it in every game he played. On his return to South Africa last year he immediately stood out for his physical presence in the bellicose battles with England.
Then this season we have seen how Brits and Vermeulen lifted the Bulls players around them. The Bulls are a different team with these two in the vanguard of the forward effort. They are leading and the rest are following. The example is being set.
And the highly successful return of this pair cries out for more of the same in our rugby. More of our players reaching the end of their career should be brought back to mentor our up-and-coming players.
When there has been a core of experience in SA teams, they have prospered. A prime example is the Bulls’ glory era under Heyneke Meyer, where a group of exceptional players hit maturity at the same time... Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw.
Another example of the value of experience can be seen in the Crusaders model. The common denominator in their nine-title domination of Super Rugby has been their nucleus of senior players (and coaches) that roll seamlessly through one Crusaders era after another, so that the culture of excellence is never disturbed and the changes in personnel are imperceptible because (experienced) like is replaced by (emerging) like.
Last year in Super Rugby, 36-year-old Wyatt Crockett retired after 202 appearances for the Crusaders.
They have a roll of honour at the Crusaders that keeps pace with Father Time in marching on and on: Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall, Reuben Thorne, Leon MacDonald, Caleb Ralph, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Aaron Mauger, Chris Jack, Greg Somerville, Daryl Gibson, Rico Gear, through to the latest group of household names headed by Kieran Read.
The success of the Crusaders is evidence of the importance of mentoring by senior players who set the team culture.
And we have seen the difference that Brits and Vermeulen have made at the Bulls. These two were expediently brought back by Rassie Erasmus with an eye on the World Cup.
Now the trick, for South African rugby, is to make sure this type of thing becomes the norm rather than the exception.