Pierre Schoeman: 'Even if the Springboks came back for me I was sticking with Scotland'

Pierre Schoeman, Scotland’s charging wildebeest of a loose-head prop, has an accent from his native South Africa that’s as thick as one of his haunches. So when he reveals his contingency plan after being caught in a downpour on his arrival in Edinburgh four years ago, I think he says “porn show”.

"Schoo! Schoo!" Scotland's South African-born loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman is a Murrayfield cult favourite.
"Schoo! Schoo!" Scotland's South African-born loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman is a Murrayfield cult favourite.
"Schoo! Schoo!" Scotland's South African-born loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman is a Murrayfield cult favourite.

Sorry, big man, I say, you’ve just told me that when you and your wife Charissa stepped out of Sainsburys with your groceries and the heavens opened, you went back for a XXX movie? I didn’t think this well-respected supermarket chain sold such things.

“No, ha ha, we got ourselves ponchos. But it was summer so it was hot and soon we were sweating and had to take them off. And we just looked at everyone else and thought: ‘They’re walking around in their suits with the gelled hair. Or they’re drinking their Irn-Bru and eating the wee Greggs pies. They must be used to the rain here.’” There then follows a slight pause, comedy timing of which a stand-up would be proud, before he adds: “And, yes, we then went back to our apartment and put on the film!”

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I had an idea the man would be good fun. The coach who signed him for the capital XV, Richard Cockerill, had provided this testimony: “Unusually for a South African, he’s quite an amusing fellow.” And the woman at the Murrayfield gatehouse had promised I’d have an enjoyable afternoon with him and could she maybe tag along?

So, the national archetype has been mildly disparaged - is Cockers right? “I think what he was meaning was that hard man of Dutch origin whose wife is at home cleaning the dishes while he’s out in the field finding meat. Regarding humour, I think South Africans make tough or bad things really funny. If you didn’t laugh you would cry.” Can he think of some examples? “Oh you know, hijackings … farm murders.”

And what, then, are the chief characteristics of the SA rugby man? “Well, these guys want to be physical. All the time. They want to get straight on you. They want to beat you. Even if it was darts, even if it was barbecue, they have to win. That’s the mentality.”

Previously, before his flight here, the 28-year-old Schoeman was one of “these guys” and thought - hoped - his international career might be as a Springbok. “I believed I could have had a shot. Maybe not 50 caps but enough to get the jersey and the blazer.”

But he’s become Scotland’s gain. He qualifies to wear the dark blue on residency grounds, a change to the rules meaning he only had to wait three years, marking his debut against Tonga with a try. That was 14 months ago and in double-quick time he’s become a Murrayfield cult favourite with his every rampage being greeted with roars of “Schoo!” from the stands.

It’s not always easy for those big units up front to get themselves noticed, at least among casual observers who maybe aren’t au fait with the thumping subtleties of the pack, but Scotland’s No 1 has the advantage of his love of a barnstorming run and being highly conspicuous thanks to that ridiculous mullet.

“When I hear the crowd shout my name it’s incredible,” he beams. “I believe I can do anything, run through anyone, although it doesn’t make me think I’m a better player than the rest.” Still, do the others get jealous of his fan-club? “Only one - Duhan [van der Merwe]. But he’s on all the posters, the pretty boy for the media!”

Who, though, with that crazy hair does Schoeman most resemble? The proverbial bat out of hell, I suggest. “Ah yes, Meatloaf. I feel Meatloaf and tell my wife this. I used to play the drums and guitar. I would love to have become a rock star - plus-size.

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“My team-mates tell me I’m going bald at the front. I blame the sticky spray they use because this country is so blessed with the weather, ha ha - it’s attaching to my hair and pulling it out. I’m going to have to speak to the groundsman and ask if he could please pick up the clumps I’m leaving on the pitch.”

Schoeman fires off a number of jibes about our testing temperatures. Because Murrayfield is icebound today, training had to be moved to Granton in search of vague balminess. Upcoming for Edinburgh is the festive double-header against Glasgow, annual fixtures which Schoeman relishes.

For Scotland, he acknowledges, 2023 will be huge. “I think our time in the Six Nations is now. As a group, the legends and the new guys like me, we believe we’re not far off what we want to achieve. But this is the moment for all those school fees, all the hard work, all the experience gained, to align. This is when we have to produce.”

Then there’s the World Cup but a tough draw will mean that to qualify for knockout the Scots will have to overcome Ireland or those mighty reigning champs that Schoeman knows intimately. “For me, playing against South Africa will be about pride and massive respect but also wanting to be my best for Scotland and to say to the Springboks: ‘I want to beat you. We’re going to give you our best fight and I’ll stand my ground until I have nothing left.’”

When columns and think-pieces are written about Scotland’s reliance on overseas players, Schoeman’s name is often mentioned. He can do nothing about that, save for restating his gratitude for the chance to play international rugby and, when he trundles onto the park, giving it his all. Yet there are tartan connections. They’re as thin as the thread on a schlocky–jocky gift-shop kilt, perhaps, but they amuse him and he offers them up with a fetching smile.

“I’d never visited Scotland before 2018 but my grandparents, who’re both still alive, travelled a lot and they came. When I was seven they brought back a Scotland strip and an England one for myself and my brother Juan. He’s three years older so he chose England. When the Springboks came to the UK on their end-of-year tours we’d watch on TV and at every half-time Juan and I would go outside with a ball when he got to be South Africa and I was always Scotland. He promised he would go in hard but he always did: against a wall, in the dust, on the stones, in the dog poo. But my little Scotland shirt saw a lot of sun - more than any other from the same shop!”

Both brothers grew up to be loose-heads with Juan currently playing at Bath and our man - who hopes the pair can squeeze in Christmas together between rugby commitments, with their mother Marie due to fly over from South Africa - tells a touching story of how the lad who used to knock him about in their make-believe Tests helped him cope with their parents’ divorce.

Schoeman spent the first eight years of his life in what he still calls Nelspruit, now the city of Mbombela, on the Crocodile River in South Africa’s north-east near to the Kruger National Park. After Marie’s split from his father Johan, who played rugby, he moved to Pretoria, and the break-up hit him hard.

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“It was a bit ugly. Nobody died and we hadn’t been abused but never again would we have what you’d call that safe home. I hear from my friends at Edinburgh and Scotland that divorce can be a significant game-changer and I think it must be much worse for little girls. But I guess you have to be thankful for everything you learn when you find yourself on that kind of path.

“Our mother and father both re-married and at first we didn’t like our new step-parents. Our culture had been torn apart. Juan would bully me and I’d fight back. But in the evenings he did something cute and nice. ‘Okay,’ he’d say, ‘we played rough but now if you want you can bring your pillow and we can pray together.’ He taught me how to read the Bible.

“I did go to church when our parents were together. I wore the khaki pants, sang the songs, prayed for the food. But the authentic, real relationship with God? My brother showed me that.”

Schoeman credits Him Upstairs with a lot of the key moments in his life, not least the opportunity to join Edinburgh, which came shortly after he and Charissa had married. “Was it a good time? We’d just bought a house together in Pretoria. I had a nice pick-up, she had a car and a job. But I believe God planned Scotland for us. The doggy had to be left with Charissa’s mum and suddenly there we were, down to just two suitcases. But my wife was the one pushing me. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘this is our adventure.’ And so we came. It was like Outlander.”

He knows the story of former Scotland prop Euan Murray, a committed Christian who wouldn’t play on Sundays, though doesn’t apply the same strictures to himself. “I applaud Euan for everything he stood for but for me, faith is not a set time and place. God gave me this opportunity, this talent, and I have to honour rugby.”

The Schoemans have settled in well here. Home is Rosewell, Midlothian and they worship at Edinburgh’s Hillsong Church. Pierre regularly plunges into the sea at the city’s Wardie Bay and Eyemouth. He’s developed an affection for Hearts and, to wind me up, launches into a chorus of “The Hibs are falling apart again … ” Peebles - once home to a great-great-great grandfather - is a popular destination for day trips. And until recently he and a business partner sold biltong from a garage, earning £16,000 of sales in the first month, eventually selling the operation when it got too big.

Charissa, who’s currently following up her degree in Strategic Communication with a masters is, as we’ve learned, important to her husband being here. He says: “I’ve known her since I was six and, honestly, thought then that one day I’d like to have her as my wife.” They lost touch as she moved house 11 times, eventually reconnecting through Facebook when Shoeman, then 17, was a rugby prospect. “I invited her to come and see me play. She said her family didn’t watch rugby. They must be the only ones in South Africa who don’t! I didn’t give up and during the close season shifted my training so I could run past her house.”

Only once has he thought the move here wasn’t a great idea. “It was after my first season at Edinburgh, very successful, and I took Charissa for a holiday in Bali. We were sat by the ocean watching the sunset and enjoying a nice beer. I wobbled. ‘Do you know,’ I said, ‘it’s really tough getting up for 20 or 30 games, cold mornings on the training field, playing over Christmas.’ I told Charissa about John Barclay, the snow hitting him in the face and how glad he was to be retiring. ‘Maybe we’ll stay for a bit, move on to France, make some money and then we can go back to South Africa.’” But he was talking to a student of Strategic Communication who was having none of it. “‘Change your mindset,’ she said, ‘or you’re going to make this very miserable for us.’ And she was right.”

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Schoeman went back for more cold mornings and earned the kind of rave reviews which would make a call-up for his adopted country inevitable. “That’s when friends asked: ‘What if the Springboks are watching and they ask you to play for them?’ My answer was always: ‘No, I’m staying. It’s Scotland for me.’”



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