The prop talks swapping South Africa for Scotland, tough tightheads and the importance of his faith with RW's Tom English

Pierre Schoeman’s rugby journey

Pierre Schoeman, the hulking Edinburgh prop, helped Scotland make it back-to-back Calcutta Cup wins in the opening round of the 2022 Six Nations – and he had an important role in the previous year’s triumph at Twickenham too, albeit a non-playing one.

Schoeman hadn’t yet qualified to play for his adopted land at that point – that only happened in autumn 2021 when he made a try-scoring debut against Tonga before beating the Wallabies and losing to the Boks. His role in the great Calcutta Cup victory of 2021 was that of babysitter to WP Nel’s four children as his fellow South African was down south as part of the match-day squad.

“WP is a great friend of mine and the kids came around to our place and it was special,” says Schoeman. “I remember the game, of course, because it was an incredible thing they did down there but one of the nicest memories of that weekend was watching WP’s son playing rugby on PlayStation.

“His father is on the game, so he was playing as his father the whole time. You know how you can increase the strengths of each player? Well, he made his dad bigger, stronger, faster – he was running in tries from all over the place. It was very funny. I think he was outsprinting the fastest players in the world. It was also beautiful to see a son looking up to his father like that.”

Schoeman is not just a friend of Nel’s but an admirer. Ask him who are the toughest tightheads he’s ever come up against since he moved to Scotland in 2018 and he picks three, Nel being the first. “In the scrum he’s like water, he just always finds the cracks.”

Then he mentions Uini Atonio of La Rochelle. “It was 2020, a Champions Cup week and also the week I ate the most food I ever ate in my life. Cockers (former Edinburgh coach, Richard Cockerill) told me I was going up against Atonio, who’s massive, and that he’d be having Will Skelton behind him, who’s doubly massive. I had to eat my meat that week.”

The third man on his list is his old Bulls pal Trevor Nyakane, a player he went up against in the autumn when the team of his boyhood dreams, the Springboks, arrived in Edinburgh.

“I’m not going to lie, I wanted to be a Springbok. That’s how I saw my career going from when I played in the Junior World Cup in 2014. I’d move on to the Bulls, then I’d play for South Africa and at some stage down the road I would do what Bakkies Botha and others did and move to Europe.

“My journey turned out a little different. I’m a Scotland player now and I feel unbelievably privileged to wear that jersey. When you step back from it, it’s amazing what’s happened.

“I mean, in that Junior World Cup we played against Scotland in our first game. I scored a try in a team with Jesse Kriel and Handré Pollard. If you told me then that seven years later I’d be playing against them for Scotland I’d have thought you were crazy. Life is funny. You can’t predict anything. You just don’t know what’s in store.”

He says he has mixed emotions about that day in November when he played against the Boks. Pride, for sure. A certain sense of weirdness, no doubt about it. Ultimately, it was disappointment he felt. He thought Scotland were good enough to win, but in the critical moments the world champions suffocated them and that was that.

He has regrets but he also has hope that come the rematch in the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France he’ll get a chance to make amends. That’s a long time in the future, he concedes. He, more than most, knows the futility of making long-term plans as a professional sportsman.

Schoeman takes us back to where it all began for him. South Africa, he says, is “special, beautiful and will always be in my blood” but it’s also troubled.

“Rugby gives us the opportunity to explore new places and build a new life, as my wife and I have done in Edinburgh, and sometimes it’s only when you do move away that you see how abnormal some things are back home.

“Power cuts and water shortages and people sleeping with firearms close to them. It’s why I say that it’s not only money that brings so many South African players over to this part of the world, it’s the opportunity to experience a different life. None of us will ever abandon South Africa because it will always be part of who we are, but it’s good to get a different perspective.”

Pierre Schoeman's rugby journey

Pierre Schoeman on defence duty against South Africa in November 2021 (Getty Images)

That old life of his in Nelspruit seemed pretty idyllic, to be honest. “I grew up next to Kruger National Park where my wife is from as well. We had wildlife, we could sleep under the stars, go out on the sand dunes, on the boat, diving, exploring nature. We’d have a barbecue twice a week.

“There was one time, when I was 13, I went cage diving to see some great white sharks. There was a big population of great whites in that particular area because they feed on the seals there. I climbed down the ladder of the boat and I saw this shark going past and he was looking at me and I had to be strong not to wet myself. You could see that one bad step on the ladder and I was in trouble. I would have had a big chunk taken out of my love handles – maybe I could have been a centre if that had happened.

“They’ll chuck bait at them and they’ll come close and bash off the cage. You feel pretty vulnerable in there. It was scary but brilliant fun at the same time. It was about the equivalent of £50. Not cheap, but worth it to get so close to a great white – as long as they don’t eat you.”

The move to Edinburgh in 2018 was a major one. Truth be told, when the offer came through he knew precious little about the city. He knew about Murrayfield because he had watched the Six Nations as a boy and the place was almost familiar to him, even though he’d never actually seen it in real life. But the rest of it? Not a clue, until he did his homework.

He learnt about the history and saw the beauty. He weighed it all up. South Africa had a nice climate, the great outdoors, friends and family, the pick-up truck, the barbecues and the Bulls. Still, he and his wife opted for Scotland.

“We packed up two suitcases and left – and we had no hesitation in doing it. We talked it through and said, ‘Okay, we’re going for it, big time’. At that time the residency rule was five years, so I knew that if I had any chance at all of playing for Scotland then I had to wait five years and I was cool with that. Then, of course, there was a delay in the five-year rule because of Covid and I qualified after three years. That was a big break but I came here thinking it was going to be five years, if ever.

“When I started to do pretty well with Edinburgh I had people asking me what I’d do if Rassie Erasmus called me and offered me a chance to play for the Boks. I would have said no, this is my life now. I’d made a commitment. We bought a house, my wife started her studies at Queen Margaret University in strategic communication and public relations, we joined a nice church, we made great friends. We were, and are, really happy.

“We set up a business selling South African meat products, which we sold to WP because it had almost got too big and was taking up too much time. I wanted to dedicate myself to rugby with Edinburgh and give myself the best chance of getting a chance with Scotland. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.”

His faith is key to who he is. He grew up in a Christian family where church and the bible were as much a part of life as the braai and the rugby ball. He tells a story about his childhood. He was nine years old in 2003 and there was this girl called Charissa in the same school. They were friends. He was sweet on her but “there was no kissing or anything like that”.

Her dad was a builder and the family moved away. They lost contact. Then in his last years in school when interviews were being done for the role of prefect, Schoeman – and others – were asked who in the world they would most like to meet.

Some came up with the name of world leaders, others with famous celebrities, one or two mentioned Jesus. Schoeman said that the one person he would most like to meet in the entire world was his future wife. And very soon after, he did. Charissa reappeared, as if by magic. They went out, they got married and now they’re together in Edinburgh.

“I was 17 when I said that in school and all the boys gave me a bit of stick for it. It sounded a bit soft. I don’t know if God had anything to do with us reconnecting but I know he’s important in our lives. Some people believe and some people don’t and that’s fine, you don’t judge them or bible bash them. For us it’s unconditional love. It’s part of us.”

As is Edinburgh, as is Scotland.

This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s February 2022 edition.

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