There will some familiar faces in the Scarlets line-up when they travel to Cardiff Blues on Saturday night as Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny return. But there will also be one player making his first start. South African prop Pieter Scholtz has had to show patience, but plenty of resilience, too, as he told Graham Thomas.
Given the year Pieter Scholtz has come through, scrummaging against Cardiff Blues should feel like a pushover for the Scarlets prop on Saturday night.
The 20-stones South African is set to make his first start for the region after two cameo replacement appearances so far in the Welsh derbies – against the Ospreys and the Dragons.
Now, Scholtz is poised to play against the Blues at the Cardiff City Stadium – in a match that is live on S4C – and if resilience is character-forming in a physical sense, then the home side’s front row could be in for a long night.
In recent months, Scholtz has:
- overcome playing for a team that hardly won a game
- been left without unpaid wages after the Southern Kings were bankrupted
- Come through a nine-month period without playing a single match
- Spent two weeks in quarantine in a Llanelli hotel
- Been divided from his fiancé back in Port Elizabeth after all flights from the country were banned during the last round of pandemic measures
When the Scarlets suffered front row injuries, head coach Glenn Delaney was quick to move for Scholtz, a tight-head with a reputation for old school, rock solid South African scrummaging, back in November.
Great rig on that streaker…….no wait…….
Pieter Scholtz 😍
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) November 30, 2019
He was quick to join, too, after three years with the Southern Kings – the South African, Port-Elizabeth-based side that struggled in the Guinness Pro14 and won just four games in three seasons.
“The problem for the Southern Kings was that lots of good players got drafted by the other provinces,” says 26-year-old Scholtz.
“Losing became a bit of a habit. It became normalized.
“In the final year, we had a proper development of young players, but the whole Covid thing started and everyone had to leave because there was no money there.”
The Kings were reduced to paupers by last September and went into liquidation, leaving Scholtz and his teammates out of pocket.
“Four or five days before pay day, they called us all in and said, ‘Sorry, boys. There’s no money. You’re not going to get paid any more.
“At least I had managed to save a bit, but for younger guys who hadn’t played much, they were going month-to-month and then told there was nothing.”
What made it harder was that Covid-19 had meant Scholtz, who hails from the Northern Cape, had not played a game for nine months.
“It was mentally tough after they told me they weren’t going to pay me anymore. The last game I had played was in March – so there was no outlet on the pitch, either.”
With no rugby and no money, plus a recent engagement to get married, Scholtz did not need to be asked twice when the Scarlets got in touch.
“Some of the Southern Kings guys went to play rugby in France, some still haven’t been fixed up, but I just got lucky.
“The connection was made from the Scarlets through my agent and I told him, ‘Where’s the contract? I’ll sign.’
“I knew that the Scarlets were the main team in Wales and when Wales went on that 14-match unbeaten run under Warren Gatland a little while ago, there were a lot of Scarlets players in that team.
“I had played at Parc Y Scarlets once before, I knew it was a good venue for rugby, so I was excited about joining. I like Wales, it’s very friendly like the part of South Africa I’m from and Llanelli is a nice, slow-paced, chilled kind of town.”
Before he could play, though, there were 14 days of quarantine isolation in Llanelli’s Diplomat Hotel before he could meet his new teammates.
When you’ve got withdrawal symptoms from fishing 🎣
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) July 19, 2020
“I was on my own, all alone, but luckily I had Netflix. I watched everything on their schedule.
“It was a bit frustrating because I couldn’t do a lot. In a hotel room, it was difficult. But you had to follow the rules.”
So far, Scholtz has played 20 minutes against the Ospreys and 30 minutes against the Dragons – what his coach Delaney calls “bite-size” portions for a man who had been starved of rugby.
Delaney says: “Pieter does the basics well, loves a scrum, loves a maul, and cleans rucks out pretty effectively.
“He’s a really good lad who is fitting in wonderfully well. He’s a renowned scrummager and we want to make sure we use that to our advantage.
“It’s about giving him time to get into things, because he hadn’t played for nearly nine months by the time he arrived. It’s bit-size chunks with Pieter, but he’s fitting in really well.”
🚨 TEAM ANNOUNCEMENT / CYHOEDDIAD TÎM 🚨
Here’s your Scarlets 2️⃣3️⃣ to take on @cardiff_blues at the Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday (19:35)
— Scarlets Rugby (@scarlets_rugby) January 8, 2021
The player himself is looking forward to an increasing influence with his new team, even though he may have to wait a while before playing in front of Scarlets fans.
“The guys here think it’s weird playing in front of no fans, but I played for the Southern Kings, so I’m used to playing with no fans!
“I would like to stay beyond this season and get a longer contract. It was always my dream to play a proper spell with a team from overseas.
“The Scarlets have some of the best rugby players in the world here and I think we can definitely win things. Ken Owens is one of the best hookers in the world, so I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
As for the Blues and the upheaval caused by the departure this week of head coach John Mulvihill, Scholtz is happy to prove he’s got nimble footwork to match his muscle.
Here is the Cardiff Blues side for tomorrow’s clash against @scarlets_rugby.
Slightly amended, with Ethan Lewis now on the bench. pic.twitter.com/d11FHNLQPA
— Cardiff Blues (@cardiff_blues) January 8, 2021
“I don’t know what has happened at the Blues, but we can’t think about that. We have to concentrate on ourselves.
“I just feel as though I have made a mental breakthrough by playing rugby again and I can’t wait to get out there.”
S4C – Saturday, 19.15: Clwb Rygbi – Cardiff Blues v Scarlets
Live coverage of the Guinness PRO14 rugby match between Cardiff Blues and Scarlets, from Cardiff City Stadium. English commentary available. K/O 7.35.