Skeate trying something different in France
Player movement has become common in professional rugby and Ross Skeate, the former Western Province and Stormers lock who has spent the past year and a half at the Sharks, is one of the players making his move overseas.
It will be his second spell in France, where he spent two years at Toulon between 2009 and 2010.
Skeate made his Currie Cup debut in 2004 and his Super rugby debut in 2005 and has seen professional rugby move from its teens towards its 20s. So what inspired him to take the plane to Paris for a second time?
“I’ve given it a lot of time and thought, and after two very good years in Durban, it came time in my career, as an individual and professional rugby player, to make a move overseas again.”
He is not sure when he will come back to South Africa, since his French club Agen has given him the option of a third year on his two year contract.
As the two metre tall lock says, he is going to assess his situation year by year, as “things change dramatically for a rugby player over two years”.
South African rugby, at its core, was forged by the tribal ethic of provincialism, and having represented Western Province and the Sharks, what are the cultural differences between the two teams?
“I think any team culture takes its cue from the individuals that are in it at the time,” says Skeate.
He started at Western Province as Corne Krige was moving towards retirement.
“I think Durban, the culture of the Sharks, tends to be a lot more relaxed, probably because Durban is a lot smaller. Everything is a lot more centralised, a lot closer and guys are also a lot closer.”
Province and the Stormers “take on a more Capetonian and northern suburbs kind of feel,” Skeate says.
Cape Town’s climate compared to Durban’s is as different as a rump steak is to a cup of tea. What were the challenges of playing in the different cities on a regular basis? Skeate pauses for a moment. “The biggest challenge climate-wise [in Cape Town] is getting up for those early training sessions when it’s really cold, training while the rain is coming at you sideways. And Durban, trying to get through pre-season in summer is absolutely death. Trying to run around in 80%, 100 percent humidity, and 40 degrees isn’t the easiest thing.”
It must have made an impression, since pre-season is the one thing Skeate says, with a laugh, he won’t miss about South African rugby, describing the 2012 edition with the Sharks as “intense”.
However, he will miss the advantage of air travel to away games as bus is the primary means of transport in France.
“We are spoilt in this country by catching a plane into Johannesburg or Cape Town and what a huge difference that makes. Something small like that: superb. The professionalism in a lot of ways is, in this country, right up there with the world’s best.”
On the field, Skeate believes rugby is gradually developing for the better the more professional it becomes. Players were spending more time on the field and in the gym with the rugby getting quicker and more physical.
“You have a guy like Marcell Coetzee, who at 21 is playing for the Springboks. It’s in line with what we see in South Africa with the big, strong physical pack and really aggressive, hard running across-the-gain-line rugby.”
Willem Alberts, Duane Vermeulen and Jean Deysel are the three men Skeate describes as “physicality personified”.
Trends have also come and gone, with some staying, such as the changing role of the fetcher and “the lock combination that Victor and Bakkies sort of pioneered for the country”.
Skeate says school teams are indicative of how rugby is changing at an early age.
“They get funding for directors of rugby, conditioners, physios and the kind of things I never even knew ’til I was professional myself playing for Province. The best metaphor that you could probably draw is American football, and how professional kids get from an early age. Rugby is moving towards that.”
A recognisable face on rugby fields across the country, Skeate is almost equally well known for his long hair, which he says doesn’t pose any problems while on the field, and for the tattoo on his right arm. Does it represent anything?
“My original family heritage on my paternal side is Celtic, old Irish and Scottish... originally from Viking times. My tattoo has a lot of Celtic influence and the tradition that comes with that. So it’s really like family history.”
If Skeate wasn’t a rugby player, he would “probably be playing basketball in Europe somewhere”. He represented South Africa at the sport at junior and student level, and nearly went to university in the United States, in part because of his ability on the court.
His retirement is still years away, but if Skeate retired tomorrow, he would write more. “I would really pursue a lot of my writing. I’ve really been loving that lately, and one or two little business things on the side that might also take up my time.”