There aren’t too many people who can claim they have cavorted with Scotland boss Gregor Townsend on a hotel bed but Springboks’ forward coach Matthew Proudfoot is one of them. The outsized South African earned four Scotland caps in the early years of the professional era and he shared a room on tour with a much younger version of Scotland’s head coach.
“I always remember the day they slipped the team sheet under the door in the hotel and he (Townsend) opened it, jumped on top of me and gave me a bit of jip.”
Proudfoot has always been a thinking man’s prop forward. He was part of the previous regime and it is testament to his abilities that Rassie Erasmus kept him on when he took the Springbok reins in March.
His grandfather hailed from Ayrshire and, as a youngster, Proudfoot feasted on stories of David Sole’s 1990 Grand Slam success. It was Jim Telfer who originally brought him to play in Scotland and it proved a very different ball game to the one he was used to.
“My eyes were this big,” Proudfoot says, miming two saucer shapes. “The first game I ever played here was at Kilmarnock, and it snowed. I was thinking, ‘what am I doing here?’
“In South Africa everything was up in the air. We carried high, tackled high, scrummed high, mauled high. I came here and Jim Telfer wanted me way down low. I was 20st and I looked at him and said ‘Are you mad?’ He said, ‘Get down there boy’. It took me right out of my comfort zone.”
He would have played at Murrayfield against South Africa but for a neck injury. He thought his chance had gone but eventually made his home debut in a warm-up match ahead of the 2003 World Cup – an emotional moment at Murrayfield.
“I was thinking: ‘What has happened? How did I get here?’ It’s iconic,” he recalled.
“Driving in on the bus this week, I pointed Murrayfield out to some of the guys who had never seen it. They were all blown away.”
Having made the move himself, Proudfoot was never going to criticise his fellow countrymen like WP Nel, Josh Strauss and Allan Dell who followed in his footsteps. Some of those mentioned will be involved on Saturday but, according to the Bokke coach: “It’s players against players.They’re adding value and we respect that.”
It may be nothing more than covert psychological warfare, but the big man layers the flattery on to Scotland with a trowel, pointing out that any team that runs up 50 points in an international must be doing something right.
A journalist who made the mistake of asking if the Scots, ranked one place and 1.2 points below South Africa in World Rugby’s pecking order, would be difficult to beat was left with their ears burning. “Silly question,” he muttered. “Of course they are going to be difficult. They are a very good side. What Gregor has done with the team is give them a lot of momentum. I think the resources are well utilised and they are a tough side to beat.”
Proudfoot thinks that Scotland’s biggest threat lies in what he calls their “continuity game”, the ability to run through the phases and he insists that the Scottish defence is tough to break down, even if Jon Davies might not necessarily agree.
While the French were typically physical at the breakdown against South Africa last weekend, Proudfoot expects the Scots to box a little more clever.
When asked if South Africa would end up playing their rugby in Europe, as many expect, rather than continue to fly across countless time zones south of the equator, he offered a considered response.
“I think world rugby is probably going to change in the next ten years. The two hemispheres are going to effectively disappear. It’s going to get closer and closer.
“As a coach, I like that two of our franchises are playing in Europe. Technically, you learn different lessons as a player. So I think it’s very healthy for the South African game. The whole world will shake up in the next two World Cup cycles and there is more benefit from having cross-hemisphere competition.
“I think we’re seeing that already, and I think other franchises are definitely looking at what the Cheetahs and Kings are doing.
“I know the Sharks and the Stormers have both been sitting there thinking: “Why didn’t we take the opportunity when we had it?”
“I don’t think Sanzar will ever disappear. I think it’s entrenched in the south and it works for the four nations.Looking at a level down, the franchise format, that’s where Europe has us beaten at the moment.”
Scottish fans will hope that that isn’t the only area where Europe has a stolen a march on the reinvigorated Springboks.