14 Oct Bob Skinstad
Bobby Skinstad says it was playing for Richmond and the Barbarians that helped him ‘fall in love with rugby again’ and make his international comeback.
The former loose forward burst onto the scene soon after the Boks won the 1995 World Cup, making his Test debut against England at Twickenham two years later.
Skinstad then amassed 34 caps for his country, but just before the 2003 World Cup he broke his arm, and says that misfortune – coupled with several years of a love-hate relationship with the game – was enough to convince him he needed a change.
“I have to be honest and say I fell out of love with the game,” says Skinstad.
“We were playing professional rugby, but we had coaches who hadn’t been professional, players who hadn’t been professional, so I was shouldering the burden of the players plus the ire of the coaches.
“It became too much. It became this whole off-field saga that had nothing to do with why I got into the game.”
Skinstad moved to Wales to play for Newport for a few months then packed in professional rugby in favour of a job at an advertising agency.
It was while he was working at that agency in 2005 that he got a call from Richmond.
“I played there with my younger brother,” says Skinstad. “It was close to where I lived and they approached a few players I knew.
“We played that season – I think it was London Division 2 South West. I played there for two years and we had one promotion and one maintenance of our status.”
Despite having ended his professional career, Skinstad was still getting phone calls from the Barbarians, and it was playing for them that paved the way for his return to a career as a rugby player for South Africa’s Sharks.
“The Barbarians went through a difficult period where they were trying to get access to international players but they were getting blocked by all the national unions,” said Skinstad.
“Someone like me – who had played international rugby and though I wasn’t at my fittest I wasn’t at retirement level yet – but I was constantly available for a tour or a trip away.
“So I ended up playing a lot of those Barbarians games and they were televised. I got a couple of calls from coaches but it was when Dick Muir called me that I decided to go back to South Africa. My partner and I wanted to go back to SA anyway and I thought that would be a relatively soft landing for us as a family.”
Skinstad moved to Durban at the end of 2006, but what started as a “soft landing” for him changed when he realised he still had a desire to play for the Springboks at the 2007 World Cup.
“I was quite involved in my work at the time,” he said. “I got involved, by hook or by crook, in quite a successful little business and I was really enjoying it.
“I thought to myself: If I go back to SA and run this business, I can’t focus on that and professional rugby at the same time.
“So I made a really conscious decision to say ‘I’m going back, I think this team – which has now won the Tri Nations and is full of world class players with a chance of winning the World Cup – if I go back now I’m going to do my best to get into that team’.
“It’s actually the reason that I chose the Sharks above two other teams that had shown interest in me in South Africa.
“I felt the Sharks team had the best firepower and I could get on with them because their offer, although monetarily not as attractive, was all about ‘prove yourself and we will back you’.
“I said to my partner; I’m changing this mindset from ‘soft landing’ to ‘I’m going to give it a crack to try and win the World Cup’.”
The Sharks went all the way to the Super Rugby Final in 2007, and being part of that team helped Skinstad realise his ambition of making it back into the Bok fold as he made his return against England in June after nearly four years away from the Test arena.
Jake White’s Springboks went on to win the World Cup, with Skinstad featuring in three pool matches and the semi-final against Argentina to end a whirlwind two years for the No.8.
Skinstad says he appreciates all the good luck that went his way to make it happen, but that it was the decision to avoid the soft landing that ultimately changed his path.
“I am very cognisant of all the millions of things that could have gone wrong,” he said.
“I broke a rib in a Tri Nations game against Australia away from home ahead of the World Cup. I could have had to throw it all away at the last second, but we had just enough weeks for me to get strong again and I was already in that squad by then.
“I might not have even made it into that Sharks squad. So there were so many people and things that went right for me but I also think it was the right mindset.
“To want to be part of that Bok side is a hell of a lot more attractive than going along and seeing if I could muddle my way through because I definitely wouldn’t have been part of John Smit’s plans if that was the way I spoke.”
Written by Keith Moore