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South African hooker Schalk Brits reveling in attacking style on the pitch and appreciating club culture off it
"I’m a bit weird," says Schalk Brits - and he’s right.
"Not just with how I play rugby but how I look at rugby and how I look at life in general."
Weirdly devoted to a rugby club 8,325 miles away from his birthplace in South Africa, weirdly carefree in the way he plays a sport that he cares about deeply and weirdly able to catch, kick, tackle, run, ruck and throw all in equal measure.
Perhaps it’s Brits’ weirdness that has made him immensely popular at Saracens.
After the 22-12 victory over Harlequins on Saturday, he was deliberately left off the team bus.
"As I understand it Richard Wigglesworth told everyone I was on the bus,” Brits explains. "I saw it turning round the corner and I had to run after it.
“After 70 minutes of playing, I’m now running alongside a bus, throwing my water bottle at it trying to get it to stop.
"Wigglesworth denies guilt but he’s definitely guilty and revenge will definitely be sweet."
Joining Saracens in June 2009 from The Stormers franchise, Brits is as worthy a symbol of the club’s journey in recent years as any.
Like Saracens, he has a heavy South African accent, he is forward-thinking, inventive, occasionally controversial, passionate about the team but also convinced that good rugby on the field stems from a healthy lifestyle off it.
"The most important guy at Saracens is the kit man and the least important guy is the kit man as well," he says.
“We stay humble - we have core values and we believe in them - and we have great individuals, people in our organisation that make life here really amazing.
"Sometimes people only measure success by the number of trophies you take home or matches you win but we look at it from a different angle. There’s more to life than rugby."
Brits points to the club crèche, where players can leave their young children while they train, as just one example of the total culture at Saracens to which he has become so attached.
The 32-year-old from Empangeni recognises he may have sacrificed a fair few more than his five international caps to ply his trade in England but he’s happy with his decision. And so are Sarries.
Last season the 5ft 10in hooker made 25 appearances for the Men in Black in all competitions. In that time he made 124 carries, ran past 19 opponents and tackled 86. His throwing success was 92%.
"From my schooldays I’ve always liked to run with the ball," he says. "I like to just play how I feel in the moment and use the God-given talent I’ve got.
"Hooker is a very versatile position, he can almost slot in anywhere and I just love the position I play.
"You get the physical part of the game with the scrumming and then you’ve got the finesse with the throwing and you’ve got the flair with the running.
"I’m thankful to my team though who let me do those things and who make me look a lot better than I actually am.
“There’s so much talent in the back row, the guys have some amazing attributes and that’s what we as a team are good at - we play to each other’s strengths and diminish each other’s weaknesses.”
Like the club he plays for however, Brits doesn’t always toe the party line.
He famously scrapped with Owen Farrell while playing against his Sarries teammate for the Barbarians against the British & Irish Lions in June and subsequently received a three-week ban.
“All of the Saracens players I play with are very competitive and if it had been anyone else I would have done exactly the same,” he says.
“I shouldn’t have done it but we are on a very good foot now and luckily, Owen accepted my apology straight away and that was important because in a team environment, especially the kind of culture we have at Sarries, it’s important to get along.”
Brits is back in action now and reveling in a new attacking system introduced by the coaching staff over the summer to get the team’s best ball-carriers, like Brits, on the ball as often as possible.
It’s worked. Sarries are four points clear at the top of the Premiership having won all of their opening matches and scoring 14 tries along the way.
"You can’t be stuck in one way of thinking, you have to evolve and when we looked at the concrete evidence we decided we had to change," Brits says.
"I’ve been very lucky that I can carry the ball a lot but we have lots of players who can carry the ball and we need to get into the best positions for our best ball-carriers.
"If we do that, good players make things happen. Our defence has always been good, our kicking game has always been good but the thing we have always lacked is attacking flair and we’re starting to get the mix right."
Brits' absence at the start of the campaign gave his hooking understudy Jamie George a chance in the first team and the youngster impressed, scoring two tries against London Irish in the first match of the season.
Brits speaks extremely highly of George - he believes the 22-year-old could captain England one day - but is hoping his apprentice quietens down in the try-scoring stakes.
"Unfortunately I’m not scoring that many tries at the moment and I need to because Jamie George is leading the hookers competition.
"I need to catch up or else I have to take him out for dinner at the end of the year.
"But I’m enjoying it - I truly believe we’re on the right track - I think we have the opportunity to be a great side this year and make England and Saracens supporters proud."
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