After I had watched the Hurricanes defeat the Highlanders, with the final nail driven in by an Ahti Savea try following a powerful leg drive, and then watched as the Waratahs demolished the Chiefs (what a turnaround after the Waratahs’ hiding at the hands of the Highlanders in the previous weekend), I wondered whether I would see rugby played better this season. The standard of basic skills, support play, goal-kicking, tactical kicking, defence, scrumming, lineouts, turnovers was top class.
But then I, and so many other South African viewers, not to mention the massive turnout of spectators at Loftus Versfeld, watched a display of rugby football that verged on the brilliant. The Lions had obviously thought-through their mental approach to this game and refined their skills. They won ‘going away’ as racing parlance has it. Everything planned clicked into place and I was in awe of the support play, the relentless forward pressure and the speed and determination of the backs and forwards linking together.
It was fifteen-man rugby at its best. It gave me hope and filled me with pride that a South African team could play as well as one from New Zealand – in fact probably better than anything I’ve seen this season. The winning score was massive – over 50 points to 22. It’s from the coaching, the conditioning, the fitness, the spirit, the leadership and the mutual support that this type of rugby can be played. Warren Whiteley must be a great captain. The results speak for themselves. In a witty interview a month or so ago at a Johannesburg Sportsman’s club lunch, Hugh Bladen – ‘the voice of rugby’ – asked Jaco Kriel what was said when the Lions team gathered in a huddle before kickoff. Kriel replied, ‘Warren says, ‘Guys, smile and enjoy it.’)
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more exhilarating player than Faf de Klerk, not even Gareth Edwards. If you think I’m crazy, I am not claiming that de Klerk is a better player than Edwards, just more explosive for more of his time on the field. Of course, many rules have changed so comparisons are difficult, but this young scrumhalf has all the skills, the drive, the speed, the confidence of a true champion. On the day he was magnificent.
I think the two best centres in South Africa today are Rowan Janse van Rensburg and Burger Odendaal. Neither was selected in either squad, and I know Odendaal is injured. In this connection, what does one say about the amazing Lionel Mapoe?! The standard of rugby he is playing is at a super level. There are other good centres like Serfontein, who has ‘both feet’, runs like the wind and is sound on defence. (He is the grandson of a former Kingswood College headmaster, Jack Slater, who played wing for the Boks in the late 1920’s). I also rate Francois Venter of the Cheetahs, Jordaan of the Sharks and, at times, de Allende of the Stormers. The latter though, given his turn of speed and the ability to cross the gain line, has too much of the ‘headless chicken’ about his breaks.
The two squads announced on Saturday evening – Springboks and a B side – brought a few surprises, but were, on the whole, expected. I only hope the final squads to take on, respectively, Ireland and the Saxons of England, reflect excellent ability rather than skin colour. The ANC have had more than enough time in 22 years since 1994 to communicate and manage representation at national level effectively. The Black players are there. Now pick on merit.
But, there is still racism abroad in this country and the hurts remain, for the ‘previously disadvantaged’, deep. So bad was the racist brainwashing of whites in this country, that, prior to 1994, the very thought of a black player ever representing the Springboks approached insanity.
I can still remember in the early ‘nineties watching rugby at Loftus Versfeld when the first black player ran on to the field. There were hoots of derisive laughter and jeering. We’ve come a long way since then. But racism, from whatever quarter, will be with us always. The South African Institute of Race Relations, in a survey, states that the best countries can hope for is a minimum of 20% racists in the population. It’s inbred and hard to eradicate. (In the case of soccer, a sport with arguably the most disgraceful and yobbish culture of all, it is still common practice for racist chants to occur and bananas be thrown at black players during matches. Unbelievable but true, and in that bastion of ‘civilization’, Europe!)
In 1958, as Rhodes University rugby captain, I was invited to present the trophies after a festival of rugby by black clubs on City Lords ground (now part of Kingswood College). I had a good day and the hospitality was friendly. The standard of play was impressive, but I knew not one of those players would ever realise his dream of playing for his country, let alone Border or Eastern Province.) Later, as first team cricket captain that same year, I took a side (some of our team refused to go!) to Fort Hare University to play their top team consisting of nine Indian students, one coloured and one black player. We played on a matting pitch.
As an example of how seriously political discrimination had damaged the ‘psyche’ of players ‘other than white’ in those days, when I swung across a straight ball and was bowled, the Fort Hare captain ran over and asked whether I had got out ‘on purpose’
Forgive the asides, so back to rugby. I’m happy Adriaan Strauss is the new Bok captain. He strikes one as a fine person, one who can command his place in the team and is a good communicator with referees – not yet in the Sean Fitzpatrick class, but it’ll come.
Last point: the other South African teams on view are still coached too conservatively. The Stormers remain disappointing, the Cheetahs still brave, the Sharks improved, but only the Lions are playing really confident rugby in this part of the world.
Enough already. I look forward to some more great play this coming weekend.