Cape Town – In an exclusive interview, former Springbok BRENT RUSSELL talks about being a victim of his own versatility, provincialism in South African rugby and the SA v Ireland Test series starting on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: You were part of Jake White’s Springbok squad in 2004 that faced Ireland in a two-Test series. Now, Allister Coetzee’s team face the same foes. How would you assess the two eras?
Brent Russell: The 2004 Irish series was a significant moment in Jake’s stewardship as it marked the start of his four-year journey with the national team. We did well to beat Ireland in the two Tests and set up a good platform for the rest of the year. I recall that Jake named three new caps in his 22-man squad – Eddie Andrews, Hanyani Shimange and Fourie Du Preez. And, in the case of the class of 2016, Coetzee has selected two new caps for his first Test match at the helm in Faf de Klerk and Bongi Mbonambi. While he has rewarded form, there is still a healthy amount of experienced players running through the spine of the side. It’s an exciting new era for Springbok rugby and, having worked with Allister when he served as White’s assistant, I can attest to the fact that he holds different beliefs than his predecessor in terms of how the oval-shaped game should be played. The 23-man squad Coetzee has selected for Saturday is not as big and bruising as many of Heyneke Meyer’s teams, and I am actually quite excited to see how this mix of players fares during the series.
Sport24 asked: What are your views on Coetzee’s selections and do they point to a new strategy?
Brent Russell: I have personally felt that in the past, players weren’t being selected on merit. But now, many more players are meriting their place in the team, which is a fillip for South African rugby. Owing to the playing personnel Coetzee has selected, I believe that we are now more suited to a game where we can spread the ball wide and keep it alive. During Meyer’s term, I felt like the players went back into their shells and all they were worried about was being conservative. How we get the blend between, attack, defence and kicking right depends on the new Springbok coach’s philosophy and the execution from the key decision makers, particularly at scrumhalf and flyhalf. And, from what I’ve seen, we already have an attacking squad so we need to play to our strengths. The Springboks have traditionally dominated their opponents from a physical standpoint, but the national team must take a page out of the Lions’ playbook and attack all areas of space. Moreover, we have to be clever in the way that we play, kick at the right times and in the correct areas of the field. Our defence has always been strong and when the ball has been turned over, we have historically returned to our kicking game because that was our frame of mind. I would like to see the Springboks attack, attack, attack because, in my view, we have nothing to really lose at the moment.
Sport24 asked: How would you compare and contrast the threat posed by the Irish then and now?
Brent Russell: We came up against a competitive Irish team back in 2004 but, from a preparation point of view, Ireland are much stronger now than when they played us 12 years ago. Joe Schmidt’s team is better prepared for challenges that lie in wait over the next three Saturdays. In New Zealander Schmidt, Ireland boast a top-quality coach. I know him personally from my time in France with Clermont Auvergne and have always rated the 50-year-old as a very intelligent mentor. In addition, he possesses a natural ability to build up confidence in the individuals that he works with. Even if you’ve been named on the bench or are on the periphery of the squad, he will find a way to instil you with a sense of belief. The Irish have been beset by injuries and have 11 potential starters unavailable for selection. Make no mistake; injuries are disruptive to a team’s preparation and performance. However, the Springboks will underestimate the visitors at their own peril, as the raft of injuries experienced is set to galvanise the group. Those that will fill the boots of the big-name players will aim to prove their doubters wrong and will see it as an opportunity rather than a burden.
Sport24 asked: How do you rate South Africa’s two flyhalves in Patrick Lambie and Elton Jantjies?
Brent Russell: I am a huge Lambie fan and really enjoy his game. He is a classy player, has proved it time and again, and has won some big Test matches for South Africa. Meanwhile, Jantjies has come on in leaps and bounds this year, has been playing impressive rugby and is totally deserving of his place in the team. The pair can dovetail well and it doesn’t have to be one or the other. We must get over the well-worn practice of trying to put one player on a pedestal and the other player down. As a coach, you must give both players a fair crack. A good example of effective rotation is the case of Neil de Kock and Richard Wigglesworth at Saracens. For the last six years, the pair has shared the match load. I believe we have assets in both Lambie and Jantjies and should stop dictating how these players should play and start finding out how they want to play. Ultimately, we must utilise their strong points in order to create a game plan that is going to work effectively for us as South Africans.
Sport24 asked: Why did you decide to quit SA rugby and continue your career in Europe in 2007?
Brent Russell: I wasn’t really in a good place at the end of 2006 at the Sharks and things weren’t falling into line. I had been sitting on the bench for three years under White at national level, and I felt I wasn’t being afforded the necessary opportunities. My lack of game time affected my self-belief and confidence in my own abilities and, as a result, my game showed it. My decision to move abroad in 2007 was primarily a financial choice in the end, and the added benefit was that I got away from all the politics. Meanwhile, if you are getting sub-treatment from clubs in South Africa and the money is not good, my advice to players would be to get out and enjoy it offshore. You have to make the most money you can because week-in and week-out you are putting your body on the line. We want to keep our best players at home, but there are bigger issues at play. I believe we are not developing our players correctly in this country. We need to get the proper cooperation from all the unions, and they need to buy into the idea that we are trying to develop in the correct way. We should look to the New Zealand rugby union as a model to emulate and need to end provincialism for once and for all. In a South African context, the unions can certainly do more to support the national team and, if that ultimately proves the case, it will strengthen the Springboks tenfold. At present, everyone is on their own mission, and it’s very difficult to come from Super Rugby, head to the Springboks and employ a totally different game plan. For my money, that just doesn’t work well.
Sport24 asked: During your Test career, you appeared on the wing, at flyhalf and also at fullback. At times, were you a victim of your own versatility and what did you make of the “super-sub” tag?
Brent Russell: I am very grateful for my 23 caps for South Africa but, if I could go back in time there are certain things I would do differently. I probably should have focused on one position at club level. Fullback was my favourite position, but I didn’t enjoy being stuck out on the wing. Whether I liked the label of “super-sub” or not, it stuck with me during my playing career and, to be honest, it’s not a bad moniker. At least people looked at me during my playing days and said: “When he came on he made a difference.” Yes, I would have liked to have started more Test matches (Russell only started seven) and was hugely disappointed not to have been selected for the 2007 Rugby World Cup, but such is life. I believe that I made the most of my career, and left the game with few regrets.