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PRO 14    

Schoeman tackles the Beirne legacy

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PRO 14    

'I saw The Greatest Schoeman t-shirts, but I don't think they wore them when I shouldered the guy from Munster'

Pierre Schoeman is hunched over the table in a Murrayfield hospitality box, eyes dancing, straggly hair quivering, an impossibly thick forearm mimicking the rearing and striking pattern of the deadly Egyptian cobra.

You see, Schoeman misses his family back in South Africa. He misses the sun, too, of course. The braai on the weekend, the road trips across the border to the idyllic coastline of Mozambique and the vast natural splendour that stretches as far as the eye can see.

But most of all, he misses the wildlife. He harbours so deep a love for the nature of his homeland and all its dangerous bush-lurking creatures that if one of these cobra fellas came slithering up the Edinburgh stadium’s west stand, he’d probably be pleased to see it.

“My wife Charissa and her family stayed on a farm just outside Nelspruit, close to the border of Mozambique,” he explained to RugbyPass. “There, they had a small river and at the sugar canes, an Egyptian cobra nest.

“What an Egyptian cobra does is it goes on the grass, then it goes up like a black mamba, it sizes up the prey, maybe looking children in the eyes. Even if you burn the whole place down, the next batch will just flood in because that’s perfect habitat for them. So they had to move.

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“When we were in Zimbabwe for a pre-season game with the Bulls, we went fishing in the Zambezi. A lot of crocodiles, hippos and tiger fish. Bull sharks that go in fresh water for miles and breed there. You swim in the river and see a shark and a crocodile together and you’re like, ‘Oh s**t!’ A lot of puff adders – they can kill, I think, 21 males or an elephant. And black mambas, a lot of black mambas.

“Even in Pretoria, there are a lot of snakes, spiders, scorpions. And you actually miss that. Say in Edinburgh, there are seagulls and crows, but sometimes I just pray that a bee comes into the house just to see some wildlife.”

Schoeman is a heck of a raconteur and, by all accounts, one of the Edinburgh squad’s jokers-in-chief. On this day, for instance, a dead seagull has been squirrelled into a team-mate’s backpack.

He’s also a fine rugby player. This leviathan of a loosehead prop grew up in Bulls country, the rugby-obsessed Afrikaans heartlands of Nelspruit and Pretoria. He went straight from school to the Bulls academy, became a Super Rugby mainstay and won age-grade caps for South Africa.

As teenagers, he and elder brother Juan – another bruiser prop who plays for the Sharks – would write down each of their goals in notebooks. And as the younger Schoeman developed, he nailed all but one of his targets. “Everything I wrote came true except one thing thus far, and that was playing for the Springboks.

“I said by the age of 23, 24, I wanted to play for them and that didn’t happen. But me and my wife see it as the church and the Lord brought us over here to actually influence this city, to reach out to people, and to learn new things here.

“There, you think you are like a hero on a pedestal, playing Super Rugby, best in the world, big, successful union. Then you come here like CJ Stander at Ireland and suddenly you think, ‘Yeah, you’re 10% of the 100% you can go to, you still have 90% to learn and to grow’. It’s just amazing how it broadens up your human purpose and spirit as well.”

Schoeman is not yet 25 and he hasn’t closed the door on that unfulfilled Boks dream, but a big part of the attraction of moving to Edinburgh last summer was the chance to play Test rugby for Scotland.

He has spoken many times about his willingness to wait out the five-year residency period while helping Richard Cockerill turn the club into a force, and that longing has only strengthened now that he has immersed himself in Scotland and its capital.

Bulls’ Pierre Schoeman warms up prior to a 2018 Super Rugby match versus the Crusaders in Christchurch (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

“To be fair, I didn’t even know Edinburgh existed as a club before they approached me. Not to be arrogant, I had offers from Bayonne, Biarritz, Sale and Edinburgh. Heyneke Meyer almost got the job at Northampton Saints and he approached me about going there.

“When I met Cockers in South Africa, he said the club is building something really special. I know it’s a cliché, but you could actually see it through the hard work and looking at coach Cockers’ CV.

“Now you’re part of the family, you want to fight to leave Edinburgh in a better place, not only to get something out of it for you and your career, but to make a success of the club, give back to the club.”

Schoeman quickly assumed cult hero status in his debut season – his manic ball-carrying, ferocious scrummaging and enormous personality made sure of that. He is fitter and pushing bigger weights than ever before thanks to Nick Lumley, the club’s strength and conditioning coach, who subjects the beefiest squad members to the most hideous interval sessions on the watt bikes.

The Edinburgh fans have christened him ‘The Greatest Schoeman’ after Hugh Jackman’s character in the musical drama, and you can even buy t-shirts emblazoned with that moniker. “I’ll put my kilt on and make my next album at the castle,” he said. “I saw the t-shirts, but I don’t think they wore them when I shouldered the guy from Munster.”

Ah, yes. That blatant and costly bump on Tadhg Beirne. The lock’s flamboyant fall. And the penalty from which Munster scored the try that took them into the Champions Cup semi-finals.

South Africa’s Pierre Schoeman charges forward against Scotland during the 2014 Junior World Championship in Auckland (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Beirne denies he took a dive, saying the spectacular nature of the collapse owed to Schoeman’s rather monstrous frame and a team-mate running into him from behind as he went down, but the aesthetics of the tumble are undeniably bad.

Cockerill knows his man was at fault, but in the aftermath he spoke about this sort of alleged histrionics and how, if unchecked, they could infect the sport.

“If a guy bumps you like that and you throw your arms up in the air, you’re going to look like you’re milking it. But now it’s happened to you, why not do it in the next game to get a momentum shift?” said Schoeman.

“If it’s worked against you, it’s working, so you might as well implement it in your game style. I would rather push him back than make a massive coward statement by falling or collapsing, which is also maybe not the right thing.

“If you look at the previous game, maybe me or other players did it as well and the guy didn’t fall, he just shoved you back. It happens all the time, playing off the ball is a big part of rugby.

“Unfortunately the ref, because he made a big scene, did see it. Therefore he had to review it. Stuff like that, you have to say, is it worth it or not?”

Edinburgh’s European campaign was intoxicating, but in the PRO14, they have been far too flaky, lost far too many games that should have been won – and won comfortably.

That leaves them in a fraught position with Saturday’s end-of-season derby against Glasgow Warriors looming. Fourth in Conference B, a point behind Benetton, who will surely make short work of Zebre, and a point clear of Scarlets, who will surely make short work of Dragons.

Falling into the Challenge Cup after the year they have had would be a brutal come-down. To guarantee fourth place and a Champions Cup play-off, they need maximum points at Scotstoun. Edinburgh have won five of the last six 1872 Cup derbies but haven’t scored four tries against their rivals for five years and last managed a bonus-point victory in the fixture in 2008.

Coach Richard Cockerill looks on prior to Edinburgh’s recent Champions Cup quarter-final against Munster (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

“I think coach Cockers wants to play in these games more than some of the players sometimes. If he was younger, he would have beaten Stuart McInally with a fist in training to get to play at hooker,” said the South African.

“No matter how many times Edinburgh beat Glasgow, they always think they’re better than Edinburgh, like a nice enemy kind of vibe. You have to make a statement every time you play them. You can see how much it means to the local boys. This is our last chance. We’ve got to be full-on, but not stupid.

“Can you do that under the pressure that you have to win? Can you be 19-7 down at half-time and still believe you can score three tries for that bonus point and win? Under pressure like this, the biggest thing is not to play with fear – what makes you good, your attributes, skill, ability, you have to use it, you have to express yourself.”

Whether crashing into contact, jigging in his kilt, or imitating a snake, expressing himself has always come easy to Schoeman.

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'I saw The Greatest Schoeman t-shirts, but I don't think they wore them when I shouldered the guy from Munster'