Streetwise Kitshoff goes against the grain by returning to SA

Steven Kitshoff Gabriele Maltinti, Getty Images

While South African rugby is struggling to stem the exodus of the country's top players to Europe and Japan, loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff has decided to go in the opposite direction.

The 25-year-old Kitshoff has left Bordeaux in France after two years, becoming the first overseas-based player to take up an SA Rugby contract, which will likely be supplemented by a Western Province deal, as he is expected to return to the Stormers. Kitshoff has played 10 Tests for the Springboks, after making his debut in 2016.

He would not have qualified to play for the Boks in the upcoming series against France if he'd stayed in Europe, after SA Rugby announced that overseas-based players needed a minimum of 30 caps to be eligible to play for the South Africa.

It's too early to say whether other youngsters who harbour plans of going overseas will follow suit because of this new policy, especially as it looks like money is the biggest draw card for many players.

Younger players don't seem to have the patience to wait for a chance to represent the Boks, with Kitshoff admitting that he was impatient when he decided to take up a contract in France.

The ginger-haired prop played some superb rugby in the six months leading up to his departure in 2015, but he suffered an untimely injury and was then overlooked by Heyneke Meyer for the 2015 World Cup in England. He then decided to pack his bags for France shortly after that.

"I was in that situation two years ago, when I didn't want to wait for my chance. But I feel if you are a good player and you keep working hard, then you are going to get that chance. It's a message I would like to convey to all the young players out there," Kitshoff told KweséESPN.

"If you grow up in South Africa, you want to play for the Springboks. Sometimes you can get impatient. But I would advise young players to stay and fight for the jersey.

"Out of my own experience, there are two ways of looking at it. If you want to go for the experience, it's great. To go for two years and experience different cultures is great.

"But if you have dreams of playing for South Africa, then I feel you have to stay and push for the jersey. That's why I wanted to come back, I wanted to be part of the Springboks again," he explained.

Kitshoff says that he has come back to South Africa a more 'mature, and a much more rounded' player. 'Rounded' refers to him smoothing out the rough edges of his game. It definitely does not refer to his weight, as the prop looks leaner and meaner since returning to home shores.

A few years before he scrummed his opponents into the ground in 2015, Kitshoff's overall discipline let him down. He wasn't the player who had been good enough to make his Super Rugby debut at the tender age of 19 - which is extremely young for a prop.

But after a stern talking-to by Matthew Proudfoot, the current Springbok forwards coach who was part of the Stormers coaching staff then, Kitshoff decided to concentrate on his game. He hasn't looked back since.

"I was in France for two years and every weekend I went up against a quality tighthead. I was there on my own with my fiancé and I grew as a rugby player and a person," Kitshoff continued.

"As far as scrumming is concerned, it's a massive challenge, but also a great place to learn your craft.

"You are thrown into the deep end at the start. You don't understand the language and the calls, but you are in the team from week one. You also haven't played against these guys before, so you don't know what to expect; especially because some guys weigh about 150kgs!

"You have to hold your own, because if your head is not in the game then you will have a tough day at the office. That taught me to keep fighting and work hard at every scrum."

France is a notoriously tough place for a prop, as Kitshoff confirmed with some of his war stories. The new cauliflower shape of his right ear is evidence that scrumming in France is not for the faint of heart.

He adds: "It's not quite as technical over in France. It's all about the power and underhand tactics. If you need to do something illegal, you must do it, just to get the upper hand!

"The scrums would collapse, but the guys would still be pushing forward. It's about getting that momentum to go forward. The games are a bit slower, but the contact is brutal.

"So your body would be sore from all the scrums, but you would be able to train on the Monday, because you didn't do a lot of running."

Kitshoff is definitely a lot more streetwise, which should make him one of the key members for the Boks when they take on the unpredictable French on home soil over the next few weeks. The first Test is on Saturday, 10 June at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.