Neil De Kock Exclusive: Sarries legend on his former club and South Africa's growing European involvement

Between 2006 and 2017 Neil de Kock made 273 appearances for Saracens
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Neil de Kock sits across a table from me in the dining hall at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport [SAS]. 

Since he retired from professional rugby in 2017, the ex-Saracens scrum-half has worked at the sporting facility which hosts the South Africa Sevens squad, its own rugby programme as well as other elite athletes. 

Now, while lunch is being prepared in the background, we discuss his former club's mesmeric start to the season along with the significant impact the United Rugby Championship is having on the game.

Thoughts of North London

During his spell in North London, De Kock was integral in helping Saracens establish themselves as a superpower in the club game. Playing for the team between 2006 and his retirement as a 38-year-old half a decade ago, under the guidance of Mark McCall, Sarries lifted a maiden Premiership crown in 2011. De Kock won two more titles whilst in the capital and the club also picked up their first Champions Cup.

It was the beginning of a period of dominance that will perhaps never be replicated. Making the Premiership play-offs for 10 consecutive seasons between 2010 and 2019, Saracens ended five of those as eventual winners. After that spell of unprecedented success came a speed bump as the club were automatically relegated for breaking Premiership Rugby’s salary cap.

Fined £5.3m along with a 35-point reduction, when the Championship restarted in 2021 following an enforced break due to Covid-19, Sarries immediately won promotion back to the top-flight.

With numerous international players choosing to stay put at the StoneX Stadium, with only a few leaving or moving elsewhere on loan, it was a sign that Saracens wouldn’t be skipping a beat on their return to the Premiership.

Making the final at Twickenham in 2021-22, it was a 79th-minute drop goal from Freddie Burns that handed Leicester Tigers their first domestic title for nine years. Heartbreak for the Saracens, but in this campaign, the club has reset the standard again in winning all seven of their league fixtures so far, the latest a 33-22 triumph over second-place Sale Sharks.

“I am sure they would have been bitterly disappointed in losing the final in the manner they did, as we did in 2014 against [Northampton] Saints,” De Kock said. “I am not surprised by how the team has responded because they have got belief in the system.

“They have got belief in them being a top team and they have proved that. They have proven that year in, year out. There has been a lot of controversy for a couple of years, and they have come out of that stronger.

“It says a lot about the culture that has been built over a long period of time, and Mark [McCall] is at the forefront of that and drives that. Players wanted to stay there, players wanted to come back to the club, and it says a lot about a club that gets a lot of criticism from the outside.”

That criticism and the furore that surrounded the club’s relegation has, of course, been a source of motivation for Saracens. In a TRU interview before the start of last season, Wales centre Nick Tompkins said as much, the talking done on the field seeing the club reinstated right at the very top.

There is almost a mysticism surrounding Saracens’ success. Much of it has been through a culture that has been developed during McCall’s tenure as Director of Rugby, the Northern Irishman first taking the reins midway through the 2010-11 term.

In his first four years at Sarries, De Kock witnessed the club rise from one that flirted with the play-offs to consistent contenders and the 43-year-old has his thoughts as to why the team have been able to stay on top for so long.

“There is no hierarchy at the club,” De Kock said. “Of course, you know your place if you are wet behind the ears at 19 and you are coming into a system where you have got Owen Farrell and Jamie George and Maro Itoje playing at the club. You know where you are in the pecking order.

“It has always been a view of sharing information and developing players from within. I sound like an old man, but if we take ourselves back; Owen, Jamie, Mako [Vunipola], Jackson Wray and Will Fraser, they were those academy kids.

“I’d like to think that they would tell you the same story that they were given an opportunity to train with and alongside the senior guys, to learn from them and feed from them. I think that culture has been instilled in the club that no one is bigger than the team, no one is bigger than the game and it only sets the club up for success if we are able to share that knowledge and put guys in uncomfortable positions and help them through it.

“There is a massive view on sharing knowledge, but not just developing players, but also coaches from within. I think the coaching staff that we had at Saracens for years was conducive to giving us the best chance of success.”

Maintaining their unbeaten start to the Premiership season last week means that Saracens are still table-toppers, their next challenge coming this Saturday against Bristol Bears. Their beginning indicates more of the same in North London, the side very much looking to go straight back to the Premiership final in the hope of ending the game with a more positive result.

Having made 262 appearances for Saracens in his 11 years wearing black and red, it is perhaps unsurprising that De Kock is backing his former employers to play for silverware once again.

“I expect them to definitely be top four,” he said. “There is no doubt. In many ways, that was always our goal. If you are in the top four, you have got as good a chance to win it as if you were in first.

“It was never us trying to end up on top of the pile, but of course, you wanted to be top four to be in a position to win it. I think Saracens believe they are a good play-off team and they have got quite a good record.”

Changes in South Africa

As much as De Kock’s career largely centred around the English capital, his life is well and truly back home in South Africa. Working at SAS, the 43-year-old is just a matter of minutes from the University of Stellenbosch where he studied before playing professionally with Western Province and the Stormers in the city he was born, Cape Town.

South Africa are, of course, one of the game’s international powerhouses and at domestic level, there has been a major shake-up over the last couple of years.

Leaving Super Rugby behind, the South African provinces combined with the Pro14 to create the United Rugby Championship [URC]. Making that leap has already proven worthwhile, with the Stormers romping home to win the inaugural competition earlier this year and in June, it was announced the teams would be joining the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup in the 2022-23 season.

That decision was met with a variety of reactions. More than most, it was one of upset in the northern hemisphere as the traditional European competitions would be moving to a new format but for South African rugby going through a significant change, it was an adjustment that made sense for the 10-time Springbok.

“My opinion is that I think it is great,” De Kock said. “A lot of the British press might not agree which I have seen. We have always competed with Australia and New Zealand over the years, and now I am talking from a rugby fan's point of view; it makes so much sense playing north.

“I am talking about broadcast times, I am talking about fixtures and watching a game on a Friday morning or a Saturday morning [as was the case with the time difference in New Zealand and Australia]. Instead, you have got a Friday night game, you have got a Saturday afternoon game or a Saturday evening game.

“From a broadcast perspective, it works because you can support your team no matter where they are playing. I think it is fresh. Having played in the Heineken Cup, it is probably the best competition in the world in my opinion and to expose the South African teams to that, I think it is phenomenal.

“I know there is a lot of traditionalists out there who are arguing against that. It is not a European slash South African competition, but I am talking from a selfish rugby perspective. I think it is great exposure for our South African market and players to play in a competition of that sort.

“I think Super Rugby went a step too far. It went up to 20 teams, back down to 14, and less is more. They shot themselves in the foot. They expanded, brought in so many new teams and I think a lot of interest was lost in that competition. I think this is fantastic.

“Another draw is that we have got a lot of expats playing in the European teams so it is fantastic to see some of the South African guys run out in the Heineken Cup against our local guys. I think it is brilliant.

“I love it and traditionalists will argue otherwise. I get that. I know the raging debate ahead of us is the Six Nations and does that get expanded to South Africa? Would I like to see it? I think it would be amazing.

“I would love to see South Africa in competition with the northern hemisphere teams but again, it is new, and it would change something that has been around for donkey’s years. I don’t know what the right answer is.”

When it comes to making further changes to the rugby calendar, that has certainly been a talking point in recent weeks. At the Autumn Nations Series launch event, Six Nations Rugby CEO Ben Morel spoke about how he and other key stakeholders in the game are working to align the northern and southern hemispheres and create a world in which everyone benefits.

It is in December that the new European competition gets underway. It will be a time which will tell us plenty about the near future. South African teams, as they have for the new URC campaign so far, shall travel to the northern hemisphere, while French and English teams will land in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban in the height of summer and contend with the unwavering heat of the Highveld.

This new horizon will naturally cause plenty of debate no matter the results or quality of rugby. How the pieces of the puzzle all fit together are irrespective, but how the South African teams fare will perhaps be of most interest, as when push came to shove in the URC at the end of last season, it was the Blue Bulls and the Stormers that overcame their Irish opponents [Leinster and Ulster] to make the Championship final at Cape Town Stadium.

“I think the Heineken Cup is going to be another step up,” De Kock said. “I think the South African teams will definitely perform well. We always sensed that there was a step up from the Premiership to the Champions Cup.

“It is a small step up again in terms of the quality of the game and the opposition. It is almost like play-off rugby from the start. It is not a marathon, it’s a sprint. That’s what makes the competition so fantastic.

“You might be suggesting that the South African teams could run away with it like the URC, but it is very competitive. I think the South African teams have gone in with a lot of confidence, but without this global season in place, it is apples and pears for three-quarters of the competition because the Springboks will be out for a certain period of time.”