The secret behind South Africans’ love affair with French rugby
CAPE TOWN - An old Bishops boy, Eric Melville, arrived in France as a 19 year old and became the first South African to play for France.
Since the late Melville, who died aged 56 in 2017, 10 South African-born players have represented France.
This weekend, Bernard le Roux and Paul Willemse were the second-row pairing against Wales in the Six Nations. Both were born and schooled in South Africa. Both went to France for the money, in terms of a professional career, fell in love with the country and dedicated their efforts to playing for France.
Scrum-half Rory Kockott also played for France and the most celebrated South African-born French international is prop Pieter de Villiers, who arrived in France as a 20 year old, and travelled the country to experience the culture and not play rugby.
De Villiers, a 71-Test veteran, just happened to pitch up at Stade Francais as a kid. He was so good, they picked him within a fortnight, and so began his amazing journey.
De Villiers roamed between Paris and the west coast of the Western Cape, assisted the Springboks as scrum coach and experienced a career high with an emphatic performance in France’s win against the Springboks at Newlands in 2006.
De Villiers, often when we spoke, celebrated the lifestyle in France. He said he could just play rugby, but that rugby wasn’t what defined him.
Life, in France, was the measurement.
I asked him why so many South Africans have been so successful in France.
His response: "Many embrace themselves in the culture. They learn the language, they just love being in France and the French people relate to those who respect the country and who make an effort."
Toulouse-based Springbok wing Cheslin Kolbe is the hottest property in French rugby, but so many other South Africans excel in the Top 14 and the secondary leagues.
A decade ago, more than 300 South African-born players were in all the French leagues. This season, the number of quality South Africans in the Top 14 is 30. But, those 30 are among the most sought-after in the league.
Arnaud David, a veteran French rugby writer, says South Africans are prized property because of their attitude and desire to accept everything French.
David says some of the world’s best foreign imports have struggled in France because of their lack of appetite for the French way of life, but the South Africans are the exception.
Joe van Niekerk and Juan Smith are gods in Toulon. Ditto Bakkies Botha.
Daan Human, as a prop, was to Toulouse, what Kolbe is to them as a winger.
De Villiers is iconic in Paris and Bismarck du Plessis is the master at Montpellier.
Scrum-halves Heinie Adams and Ricky January rocked the French leagues. Adams played until he was 36 years-old and January is still playing at 39 years-old.
Full-back Scott Spedding melted French hearts with his love for everything French. Spedding played for South Africa’s under-20s before moving to France. The French love him because they know he comes from Africa, but more significantly they know he simply loves being French.
When I asked David why South African, his response was "because they want to be here".
"The South Africans that are successful get the French game," said David. "More forwards than backs have made an impression, because the French domestic game speaks to the South African forward mentality, which is why Pieter de Villiers and Bakkies Botha thrived in the French environment.
"Joe van Niekerk was a very special player in France, but it just isn’t forwards. Frans Steyn was always big and now (Cheslin) Kolbe is bringing a similar dynamic. Steyn and Joe Gillingham were two players who just accepted France and Joe (Gillingham) married into a French family and settled. There are so many South Africans who have contributed and made a difference. The French rugby public love those South African players," said Arnaud. "And when France were out of the 2007 World Cup (in France) the locals just wanted South Africa to win.
"The French love the South Africans and, from my experience of the South African players, they love being in France because the cash is good, they live in pleasant and safe surroundings and there are no security issues. In France, we say a happy player is a better player."
La Rochelle’s Dylan Leyds and Montpellier’s Cobus Reinarch are the latest South Africans to make an impression.
"Leyds and Reinarch offer so much. The only negative for us (the French) is that they have already played for the Springboks. We love the way they play, but more than that is the way they have just loved being in France," says Arnaud.