'I don't want to be safe and in this squad, I can't play safe'
Former Springboks winger Courtnall Skosan is the rugby equivalent of Ronseal, having very much done as it said on the tin a year and a half into his two-year deal with Northampton. When the move was confirmed from the Jo’burg-based Lions in August 2021, Chris Boyd, the Saints DoR at the time, boasted: “Courtnall is a winger with a sharp turn of pace and a high level of athleticism, but he also brings a fantastic work rate and is well suited to the physicality of the Premiership.”
Skosan sure has proven to be that and more. The 31-year-old has delivered 19 tries in his 28 appearances so far, a handsome strike rate for the elusive runner who actively sought out his pandemic switch to England fearing he had become stale in South Africa after eight seasons at the Lions during which he won the last of his dozen Springboks caps in 2018.
So life-affirming has been the switch in hemispheres that Skosan was beaming with an Oscars-style smile when he strode up to a chair in midweek to shoot the breeze with RugbyPass. It was cold outside, his freezing hand when we shook a testament to the mercury falling with November giving way to December, but the winter temperature was but a triviality for the fast-twitch South African who has lapped up his time in England.
“A fresh challenge, a lot of competition, a good brand of rugby, lovely fans. It has been amazing to be a part of a system like that, coming in, being accepted immediately, getting involved, scoring tries again, and playing against teams every weekend where there are quality players on the other sides.
“With covid, a lot happened in South Africa and we were playing a lot of domestic rugby, so I needed a bit of a fresh start and it has worked out,” he said, moving on to explain the specific reason why it has worked for him at Northampton. “The style of play. It’s probably closest to what I was used to back home.
— Courtnall Skosan (@therealskosan) February 22, 2022
“They are a free team that loves to attack the space, quality players. There is a lot of talent in the group as well so I knew I was going to be challenged, knew I was going to compete every single week to get into the team and it’s more the brand of rugby that attracted me.”
And the learning. “I don’t think you ever see and do it all. I have learned a lot and seen a lot. The nice thing for me is expressing myself more, being myself more. Sometimes you get to a stage where you feel you need to be safe and I don’t want to be safe and in this squad, I can’t play safe.
“I have to put myself out there and that is the nice thing for me, I am constantly comfortable in putting myself in uncomfortable positions so I can grow as a player and as a person as well. Where I can add value with that is with the knowledge or whether it is with actions or physical work on the field or in the gym, I am always looking to be better.”
That work ethic was resoundingly clear last June when in the wake of Leicester defeating Northampton in the Gallagher Premiership semi-finals, Skosan posted an apology on Twitter for his rare underwhelming individual effort on the day.
“I would be lying if I said that it doesn’t hurt going out like that,” he wrote. “A lot of mixed emotions, but will take all the learnings and come back stronger from this. Thank you for all the support this season and for making me feel welcome at The Saints. God bless.”
Six months on, he remains glad he was so candid. “I’m a player that is hard on myself. I strive for excellence, I try to play my best game each and every time I go out on the field but sometimes you get performances that don’t go your way.
“You have got to be honest with yourself and I felt I owed that to the fans because they are die-hard supporters, they are behind us, they backed up all the way and I backed us as well. We weren’t our best on that day and that the is main reason why I did that post.”
Skosan’s beliefs are unequivocal. Check his social media avatar and it reads, ‘Without Christ I am nothing’. It’s a faith that helped him settle in quickly when he made the ambitious move with his young family to England last year, his Northampton debut going swimmingly brilliant as he scored a Premiership hat-trick against Worcester at Franklin’s.
I would be lying if I said that it doesn’t hurt going out like that. A lot of mixed emotions, but will take all the learnings and come back stronger from this. Thank you for all the support this season & making me feel welcome at The Saints. God bless. ??
— Courtnall Skosan (@therealskosan) June 13, 2022
“The most exciting bit of play for me? I would say my debut would be the most exciting thing. It was just insane, amazing how things kicked off. 100 per cent, it was a good start. The guys welcomed me with open hands and they gave me those tries, so it was nice to walk into a system, get a bite and start off well just to settle your nerves.
“I was a little bit nervous. It’s a big change, the first time going overseas, bringing my whole family over, travelling with the wife and the kids. A big change for us. It needed to go well and that start, you couldn’t have written the script, couldn’t have done it better. To start like that was a dream come true.”
Skosan’s two young boys are now five and three and in tune with what dad does for a living. “They understand the game now, they are tackling each other almost every single day, playing with the ball. It’s good to see, nice to see them getting excited with me being on the field,” he said, elaborating on his quality family time.
“Besides going to the park, it’s more church on Sundays. That is the family thing that we do. Obviously, there is colouring with the boys, and homework now as the oldest is in school, year one, so it’s kind of waking up my brain again. It’s nice.
“We found a place in Oxford,” he added about his church timetable, “so we go when we can. Obviously, some of the games are Sundays so it makes it a little tricky for us to go to church but when we can try and make our way up to Oxford. It is a one-hour drive but it is nice for us. There are South African people there as well, so it is nice to connect with people from similar backgrounds.
Always wished to have these experiences as a young boy, so always try my best to get to as many as I can. It’s a privilege. Thanks for sharing the picture. Will defs save it. https://t.co/hBoqgH5myS
— Courtnall Skosan (@therealskosan) June 5, 2022
“It helps life in general. I believe if you are in a good space off the field eventually it shows on the field as well so keeping your mind clear, keeping yourself centred and making sure you are around good people all the time, it’s a difficult thing but if you can find those spaces where you have a safe haven it is just nice for me to be a part of that.
“We have so many challenges in life, a lot of stuff, off the covid we have lost people, we have gone through so many things you have got to keep yourself sane, you have got to keep yourself straight and that is the way I do it, that is the way I do my religion.”
Skosan adores Franklin’s. “Sometimes you can’t believe how beautiful that place looks. It looks like a little green carpet, and when it is full of people chanting ‘Saints go marching in. it’s a special place to be part of,” he said, adding: “The funniest thing was actually an away game. Some fans had made a song for me and it got my attention while we were warming up. They sang it until they got my attention and I had to acknowledge them. It was quite cool.”
Last year’s Heineken Champions Cup was brutal for Northampton, though. They lost their first three matches and their final pool game was scratched with a 0-28 defeat awarded against them in the EPCR boardroom under covid protocols.
Beaten in the league on Saturday at Gloucester, a match that Skosan didn’t make the team for, it won’t get any easier for Saints as double European dates with defending champions La Rochelle and former winners Munster await in a season containing the novelty of three South African teams participating not long after the Springboks ended their European tour with Twickenham victory over England.
— Semone Skosan (@SemoneSkosan) June 2, 2022
“It’s good for South Africa to get the win off the back of a difficult tour. Some things didn’t go their way and good for them to end it like that. Big preparations now for the World Cup. Getting a result like that pulls you in the right direction and it seems to be that the squad is in a good space,” said the former Springboks winger before giving his verdict on the presence of the Sharks, the Bulls and the Stormers in the 24-club Champions Cup.
“They must be quite excited. Off the back of the URC where you had two South African teams in the final, they are looking forward to putting the foot down and say, ‘Listen, we are here’. It’s going to be an interesting one for me. They are bringing a different element to the game as well, so I’m excited for them.
“It brings a lot more to the competition and it’s going to make it better. It’s a good thing for South African rugby to go up north. The transition has been good (in the URC). A little bit of a shaky start in the beginning but once they found their stride, you could see they were here to stay.”
Unlike some of Northampton’s fellow Premiership clubs. A curiosity in the recent demise of Worcester and Wasps is that Skosan is in the record books as the last player to score a try at the Coventry Building Society Arena, his effort decisive in the Saints downing Wasps in the last match they played before their October collapse.
“It’s crazy. It’s sad to see and hear what is happening and my heart goes out to those boys but to be a part of a game like that was quite special. I had come into the season, played a few games, didn’t play a few games, got a yellow card, and then to come back and have a performance, to put it together, it was a nice personal thing.
— Northampton Saints ? (@SaintsRugby) June 7, 2022
“And to celebrate that with the boys, that is what you would have seen at the end, the passion that I had celebrating the try with the team, there was a lot of emotion in it because there was a big build-up. It was special to be part of that but sad to see some of the stuff going on out there. Hopefully, those boys will be getting jobs very soon.”
The collapse of Worcester had a major consequence for Northampton, the arrival of Fin Smith providing the leverage for Dan Biggar to accelerate his switch to the Top 14. “A good player,” reckoned Skosan about the 20-year-old newcomer. “If he is willing to learn, willing to grow, he can go far in the game. He is so talented, so good, but he has got a lot of room to grow as well so I am excited to see what he going to do in the future.”
As for Skosan’s own future, his current Saints deal expires next summer. “It’s just this season, but hopefully longer. We are hoping to stay overseas, that is the main goal for us. I want to challenge myself, I want to keep growing as a player. That is the main focus.”
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