School holidays tend to throw up opportunities for me to arrange interviews; putting my day job to one side allows me to pursue my passion for rugby and writing. A weekend in Ireland where I saw Munster and Saracens play followed by Ireland RL playing Scotland RL swiftly followed by Wasps v Quins met my live rugby wants to say the least! A meeting at the offices of Sanlam Private Investments (SPI) to explore how they’re helping both Saracens and Essex Cricket players look to the future gave me the chance to meet and interview one Neil De Kock. I was keen to ask him about the Friday night game in rainy Limerick, but also to find out more about a man who’s played his rugby at Saracens for more than a few years.
Neil was born in Cape town, South Africa; he’s one of 4 boys with an older brother who now lives in Northampton and younger twin brothers who remain in Cape Town. Although there is an age gap between Neil and the twins I can only begin to imagine how it must feel to realise you have twin boys arriving even when you don’t have 2 boys already! The definition of hard work!
Neil grew up in a sporting family; his brother Grant played cricket for Western Province and stood and played as 12th man in a test match for South Africa; he carried on playing cricket when he moved to England. Both younger brothers are very sporty and took to skateboarding as well as ball type sports; we did mention that you rarely see girls/women smashing themselves up as they crash into walls or fall from a skateboard! Neil’s mother was also a keen softball player. And his Dad set the example for his sons too, playing rugby, soccer, hockey and baseball!
Unlike England, Football isn’t the main focus for the majority of schools in South Africa; there are 2 seasons being Summer and Winter (clearly there are more, but the weather isn’t as erratic as it is here, sun in October??). In general the boys play rugby or field hockey in the winter, cricket in the summer. Could this be one of the reasons the country tends to excel at both rugby and cricket? Neil played baseball out of school which came as a surprise! But baseball with a difference, the ball is placed on a T Stand; that sort of baseball I think I could have played.
As Neil was progressing through school rugby the game was still in the amateur era. The 1995 World Cup was to see things change; that was an historic event held in South Africa. The home nation won the final beating the mighty All Blacks by 15 points to 12 at the Ellis Park Stadium. The cup was presented by President Nelson Mandela; a truly wonderful moment!
Things were on the change for rugby union; but Neil feels that he was able to grow up enjoying his rugby without the pressure of imagining it might be his career. He represented Western Province in 1995 at Craven Week (named after a Dr Craven), which is in effect Currie Cup Rugby at school level. He was picked again in 1996 but fractured his knee cap in June 1996 counting him out. How on earth do you do that? Neil clashed with another players’ knee, and…… kept on playing! It took 2 operations to fix his knee, which kept him out of the game for a year.
As things were changing in the game opportunities arose for those who would find their future playing rugby; Neil was offered a bursary for his 1st year at Stellenbosch University to study and play rugby. He studied Business Commerce with Industrial Psychology. The rugby took the form of Residence (House) teams who played against each other; from those teams the Stellenbosch Club found its’ players. 4th and 5th year students coached the younger students; at that time Neil was still playing his sport for fun. Unlike some I’ve interviewed he’s always played at scrum half, he also pulled on the wicketkeepers gloves when playing cricket. It never entered his mind he’d end up leaving South Africa to pursue a career as a rugby player.
Opportunity presented itself to Neil in his 2nd year at Uni as injury want he took his place on the field more often; he played from the bench in the Varsity Cup Final in 1998; collecting a winners medal. A coach called Steph Nel was to change the direction of Neils’ life; he spotted him along with another 9 or 10 players offering them all a chance to play professional rugby in Welkom in the Northern Free State. Neils’ father was sceptical about him leaving his degree and they agreed that he would carry on with distance learning to finish that degree off.
Steph Nel saw the core of a good team and The Griffins was Neil’s 1st experience of playing professional rugby, as the team played Currie Cup Rugby at the senior level. The majority of the team have gone on to play their rugby with bigger unions including Stuart Abbot of Wasps. Neil was spotted again, this time by Gert Smal, he’d been coaching in East London but was returning to Western Province; he took Neil with him. Finally at the age of 21 and playing his rugby at Newlands it dawned on Neil he would be a professional rugby player. At 21 years old he was playing in his home town of Cape Town; the stadium held 48,000 and Western Province regularly played in front of 40,000 against the likes of The Blue Bulls and The Sharks.
Neil stuck to his agreement with his father, finishing his degree, he had to retake his 2nd year, so in all it took him 5 years to complete. He remained at Western Province until 2006; at 27 he was ready for a change and looked to England. He was lucky enough to have a wife who was happy to follow him; they’d married in 2004 and his agent went looking for opportunities for him. Saracens were in need of a scrum half, and so began another long stay, this time at an English club. He signed a 2 year deal in the 1st instance. In his words the move was one of the best decisions he’s made. He and his wife lived in a flat in St Albans when they arrived, moving to a house later. Neil’s wife worked at the GAP Head Office in London carrying on her career in retail, soaking in the vibe that is London. The 1st person to send Neil a welcome message was Nigel Wray; a measure of the millionaire Chairman of the club.
Neil was at Saracens pre-revolution as we called it, pre Brendan Venter and Edward Griffiths; we spoke about how the style of play has changed post revolution. I can remember sitting in the stands in my 1st season as a season ticket holder shouting ‘Boring” at the top of my voice; it seemed that everything was kicked, tries didn’t seem to feature heavily. That was all to change under the new regime; several players left the club until the new management team had a group of men who would buy into to Saracens ‘way’.
I’ve been lucky enough to learn a bit about the ethos of the new Saracens as well as watch the new brand of rugby on the pitch. The ‘making memories’ thread runs all the way through the club, the players take their off field relationships onto the field; they want to win for each other. Clearly there are still kicks, there’d been plenty at Thomond Park by both teams; Munster’s execution of the kicks had worked better on the Friday night. News has recently emerged that Neil has been signed for another year at Saracens; music to the ears for the fans.
However Neil also recognises that his rugby playing days aren’t going to last for ever; hence the meeting at the SPI offices. How did he come to be there? He met Andrew Lewis who offered him the chance to do some work experience; for Neil it’s a chance to see if the world of private investment is one he could see himself working in. Andre Vos the former Harlequins and South Africa captain works for SPI in Cape Town; managing 2 teams. At this time Neil can see that SPI thrives in an exciting, vibrant environment, one he can find intimidating as it’s literally a whole new world for him. He’s looking to learn about the industry; very possibly studying with Tim Streather who is being sponsored by SPI. Neil is clearly looking to his ‘Life After Rugby’.
We spoke briefly about the season so far; Neil agreed that Saracens hadn’t been as consistent so far this season as last and had ‘got out of jail’ a few times; with a lot of rugby being played in their own half. The team has however had its share of injuries and there are key players to come back. Richard Wigglesworth had been included in the England squad as cover over the weekend and we mentioned Ben Spencer; Neil feels he’ll be a top scrum half both at club and country level.
Our one on one was followed by a very interesting conversation with Tom Westley and Greg Smith of Essex Cricket Club about the differences between the 2 clubs, a very interesting discussion for someone who holds a season ticket at one and a membership at the other! I look forward to watching Neil De Kock playing a lot more rugby knowing he sensibly has an eye on his future