Thanks for the memories: Schalk Brits and Chris Wyles ready to make one more lasting moment in the Premiership final


On Saturday as always there will be one winner and one loser, one team feeling vindicated after nine gruelling months of rugby, one team left feeling empty handed.

But there will be a smile, that is for sure, and it’ll be plastered across the face of Saracens hooker Schalk Brits. On Saturday the South African will play his final match before signing-off his 16-year professional career 12 months later than planned, having been talked into giving it one more year by Mark McCall at the end of the 2016/17 campaign.

This time though there will be no turning back for him and teammate Chris Wyles, both of whom will leave the game to focus on business ventures that they have pursued in recent years, yet even on the eve of the Premiership final Brits is not completely sold on whether he’s timed it right.

“I don’t know, I’m not really convinced,” he said. “The difficult thing is when the season started both of us – myself and Chris – you get really tested in pre-season, and I thought everyone retires around my age. I wasn’t thinking that I’ll still be feeling in such good nick, feeling so great, performing the way I’m performing, and that’s made it even more difficult.

“I guess when you want to retire you don’t want to be shovelled out on a plate and asked to leave. You want to leave on your terms, you never really know when the right time will be.

“I think the exciting thing that makes it easier is I’ve committed away from rugby from my studying point of view and from the perspective that if I want to be successful in my next career it’s more difficult the longer I play – although a lot of my rugby friends that are now working in the city say you can never replace the kind of feeling you get in the changing room or out on the pitch, running out and seeing 80,000 people and that competition, that team spirit. But I can’t really give you the answer, I don’t know when the right time to retire is, a lot of time you get asked why, but I made a commitment at the start of the season and I thought probably a few times ‘why did I do it’ but I think it’s the right time.”

Both Brits and Wyles are keen to stress that Saturday’s Premiership final against reigning champions Exeter Chiefs is not about them. In many ways, they’re right, it isn’t. This is the final that the majority wanted to see: first vs second, the two best sides in England by some distance and who have shared between them the last three Premiership titles.

Rarely has such a final brought so much anticipation with it, and after two of the most dominant semi-final displays ever seen last weekend, both sides will enter Twickenham in their stride for what could be one of the great Premiership collisions. With Friday’s team announcements came confirmation that the big-hitters will be in attendance too: Billy Vunipola is fit enough to start for Saracens, Don Armand, Henry Slade and the Simmonds brother feature for the Chiefs.

But beyond what is at stake there is still a warming backstory to take note of. Brits and Wyles joined Saracens when they had never been English champions in what almost feels like a generation ago. As McCall was keen to point out this week, “the fact that it is our fourth final in four years – to be in seven finals out of a possible 10 is a good achievement, a great achievement given the quality of the clubs that exist in Europe and in the Premiership, and something we should be proud of.”

Brits and Wyles have been two of the most important players in the Saracens revolution – if not the most important. Not only have they hit incredible highs on the field with European Cups, Premiership titles and the famous double in 2016, but they remember the hard times and were still smiling come the end of it.

That’s Brits in a nutshell. Come rain or shine he is always a pleasure to be around. Even while he speaks to the media, the South African is laughing and joking, sitting bare foot immediately after training while picking from a plate of fruit. Even when he has finished his media duties, he hangs around that little bit longer knowing that it is the last chance that he will have to do so. Some players can’t stand their commitments to the press, yet Brits embraces it with a charm and charisma that is almost impossible not to like.

The same goes for his rugby career, too. After admitting that new Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus has not made any contact regarding a shock recall for an international swansong, he draws on the memories that he will take with him away from the sport. The best ones, he says, were all off the pitch.

“Verbier, skiing – going crazy with this bloke off the slopes,” he says in Wyles’ direction in acknowledgement of a past Saracens team bonding trip that the club have pinned much of their success on. “Munich beer festival, dressed up. Miami in RVs…

“There are a lot of games you remember, but vague. It flashes by. The trips that we have been on – those are the things that I would remember. I’m not the ultimate rugby pro, I love the game, but the times I build social capital with my mates are the times I will remember more than the games.”

As Brits leaves their St Albans training base on his bicycle for one of the last times, his character shines through once more as he slowly weaves down the driveway intentionally holding up teammate Vincent Koch behind him.

It’s all of this that leaves you thinking that Brits might just struggle to cope with the change where Wyles will not. The United States international will turn to his business venture Wolf Pack Lager Co – the craft beer he created alongside former Saracens captain Alistair Hargreaves – full-time, and his new chapter means that he feels “at peace” with the decision.

“It’s hard to know when to retire but for me personally I also wanted to feel a bit proactive about it,” Wyles explains. “I’ve had 10 great years at the club, a decade playing with a team that’s had some unbelievable memories both on and off the pitch and I just feel you don’t want to be shovelled out. You want to leave in a proactive way when your body is feeling good, you can play with your kids, you can use your mind, you can get involved in everything else that is going on in the world and for me I feel quite at peace.

“Obviously there’s little fleeting moments where you’re not going to replicate the type of energy that you have in a squad environment but I’ve seen a lot of players that have left at the right time, and that have left at the wrong time. With that view point I think I’m picking a good moment, so I feel at peace with it.”

The sentimental ending this weekend sees Brits and Wyles carried off the hallowed Twickenham atop their teammates’ shoulders, the trophy in each of their hands. But Exeter will not make it that easy to snatch away their crown, and history has proven before that fairy tale endings sometimes aren’t meant for the Premiership final. Martin Johnson saw his 2004 Leicester farewell wrecked by Wasps, and even for Saracens, they know exactly what can happen having seen former captain Steve Borthwick has his swansong wrecked by Toulon and Northampton Saints in quick. But more importantly for Wyles, he got his retirement spot on.

“I think if you take Steve Borthwick, he was about 34, we finished in two finals, the ones we unfortunately didn’t win,” Wyles concedes. “He was in-demand as a player for his experience and for what he brought on the pitch and he was very well prepared off the pitch. He had done a lot of coaching and in weeks off he would go all over the world to gain experience and he just said the time was right. I think he was very pro-active – and look where his coaching career has gone now.

“I would never knock anyone who wants to play rugby for as long as they can, financially it works and it allows you more time to explore other opportunities. But in my particular case I’ve got some interesting opportunities that I am excited about. I can’t complain as I have had 10 amazing years. What more would a couple of years be?”

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