In 2002 Brent Russell scored one of the greatest tries that I can remember and on top of that he scored it against the Wallabies. Alongside Ricky Januarie’s try against New Zealand and Bryan Habana’s against Australia that stands out as one of my top 3 tries I have seen.
Brent played 23 times for the Springboks in the process scoring 8 tries and many see it as a travesty of justice that he never played more. His career has seen him play for the Sharks, Stormers, Saracens and now represents Clermont in the French Top 14. All Things Jabu sat down with the pocket rocket and chatted about all things rugby.
All Things Jabu (ATJ): Hi Brent, thanks for the chance to chat. Having played in South Africa, England and now France, what has been your favourite league to play in?
Brent Russell (BR): Thanks Jabu, its a pleasure. Each competition has its own unique features about it. For one thing, the refereeing in each competition is very different and so you have to adapt as a team, which often determines the style of play. For instance in SA, the refereeing allows for a more open style, free-flowing game, rather giving advantage for positive play, which in the end allows the players to be more expressive and fine tune all their skills. In the UK, the refereeing is very good and consistent, but the weather plays a huge part and restricts the free flowing open play game plan.
I was at the peak of my competitiveness while playing in the Southern Hemisphere competitions, and always enjoyed playing my rugby in SA. I would have to say that the Currie Cup and Super Rugby were my favourite competitions.
ATJ: Will we see you return to South Africa for one final flourish in the Super 15?
BR: It’s very difficult to say. I am enjoying my rugby and the way of life here in France. I don’t have too many years left in these legs of mine, but if the opportunity presents itself to return, I would definitely look at it seriously.
ATJ: You’re a player that most South Africans feel should’ve played more for the Springboks, do you feel you were unlucky in this regards?
BR: No, I am very happy with what I have achieved and very grateful for those opportunities. I would have loved to have played more games for the Boks, and would have liked a few more opportunities at times. At times I was pretty frustrated, feeling that I could have made more of a contribution, but in general I am thankful for the opportunities I was given, rather than dwelling on what might have been.
ATJ: Do you feel that the Springboks should be more open to include players playing overseas in future squads?
BR: Yes I think they should include a few more players from overseas. I do however believe that the core of the team should be playing their rugby in SA. A player can mature into a more complete player by experiencing other cultures, competitions and coaching styles.
ATJ: What is your best position?
ATJ: Do you think that your versatility was an asset that gave you opportunity or was it something that hindered your career?
BR: I think it was a bit of both. Coaches have their own ideas of how they want to get the job done, and players have to fit into that team dynamic. Ideally, I would have liked to have been given a bit more time in one position and allowed to develop my game in that position. But I always enjoyed playing whether it was on the wing, flyhalf, or fullback. I have even played a game here in France at scrumhalf.
ATJ: Pat Lambie is someone who is also seen as a super versatile player, what do you think is his best position?
BR: I would like to see him at 10. He has everything a good 10 has to offer, and if the coaches can see that, believe in him, he could grow and mature into one of the best 10’s in the world. I also think he offers a lot playing at fullback, injecting pace and timing into the backline, so it is a difficult call to make.
ATJ: If you weren’t playing rugby, which other sport would you be playing?
BR: I grew up playing soccer, and so I would have to say playing football for Liverpool would have been my dream. As a kid I visualised myself playing alongside the likes of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Ian Rush.
ATJ: What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
BR: Running out for the Springboks for my first test match vs Wales in 2002 takes some topping. Scoring my first test try (and in fact any of my test tries) was really special. Playing for the Barbarians against England at Twickenham has some really special memories for me as well.
ATJ: Coming from Sevens rugby, do you feel that this helped you jump start your career?
BR: Sevens rugby did exactly that. It set up a great platform of international exposure, belief in one’s abilities, together with fine-tuning of one’s skills. It is a great forum for developing virtually every aspect of the expanded format of the game, from attacking flair to defensive patterns. Sevens showed me the value of complete fitness, and gave me the sheer, outright enjoyment of the game.
ATJ: For you what have been the biggest differences moving from South African rugby to play in Europe?
BR: The game in Europe is typically professional, in that there is a cosmopolitan bunch of guys gelling together in a team, and plying their trades. Apart from the Frenchmen, I have played alongside Aussies, Kiwis, Argentinians, Samoans,Georgians, Englishmen, Italians, Fijians, Scots, Welshmen and a Canadian who has brought his ice-hockey temperament to the rugby field. He collects more cards than a croupier. Clubs have bigger budgets, so the squads tend to be a lot bigger. You can sit out weeks without getting a game.
ATJ: Favourite Stadium you’ve played in?
BR: Newlands and Ellis Park hold special memories, as has Kings Park, Twickenham, Cardiff and Stade Francais. I have had some of my fondest rugby moments at Newlands, so if I had to pick just one, Newlands would be it.
ATJ: From your experiences playing overseas, what can South African Rugby Unions be doing differently?
BR: I feel that some of the SA Unions (and SARFU, for that matter,) should not discard what international coaches and key personnel can do for a team. One only has to look at what John Mitchell has brought to the Lions set-up in a relatively short time, to appreciate how fresh thinking and a different approach can transform a team. I have often thought that South African teams are often too reactive and stereotyped, as against being pro-active, when it comes to adapting to changing global trends, and styles of play. It seemed to take us a few seasons to cotton on to the fact that we were losing matches at the point of breakdown. Our speed of recycling of usable ball was way behind the rest of the world for so long.
South African schools and unions are very fortunate in that the Springbok brand is so strong, with so many kids growing up with the dream of running out in the Green and Gold, so the interest in rugby is already there from a very early age. The importance of the Springbok emblem in the development of the game is something that cannot be over-emphasised.
ATJ: Lastly, who is the best player you’ve played with?
BR: Difficult one to call. Carlos Spencer put me into some half-gaps during a Barbarians game that I thought took great skill. Wendell Sailor was also pretty unstoppable in that game. I think Julien Bonnaire, my Clermont teammate is an honest grafter and doesn’t seem to have bad games. During my Bok days, I thought all my teammates were pretty awesome. It is difficult to single out individuals in a team sport.
ATJ: Thanks so much for the time and good luck for the rest of the season!