If it weren’t for rugby ...


If it weren’t for rugby ...

For some of us, the game is a culture rather than simply a sport. ALBERTUS VAN WYK remembers what it has meant in his life: the protest, the unity and the excitement.


RUGBY glory on the field largely eluded me. Yet rugby is in my blood and bones and muscles more than pampoenkoekies and bobotie. It has just always been there.

Unlike my city kids, I couldn't choose from a menu of team sports that I could play at school: softball, water polo, hockey, soccer…

For us it was rugby, cricket and athletics, and of these rugby was by far the biggest. More or less all the boys played rugby, except for the Jehovah's witnesses and one boy who took church organ lessons.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

As a budding adult, I cut all Afrikaans cultural customs that even slightly reeked of nationalism out of my life. Even rugby.

I was a student at the time, and spent Saturday afternoons with a few other quasi-bohemians next to a pool in the Eerste River with affordable wine, progressive jazz and something alternative to smoke.

But as we returned from the river in the early evening of October 1, I couldn't help quietly asking the man I was staying with about the score in the 1994 Currie Cup final. It was Transvaal 56-Free State 33.

These days I can even admit that rugby opened doors for me. Here are a few.

If it wasn't for rugby, I would never have experienced the wonderful atmosphere of a packed stadium.

Rugby is more than a sport. It's theatre on a large scale, like the gladiators in the arenas 2,000 years ago.

A Test between the Springboks and the All Blacks is actually a play with a text that is written before your eyes.

Every time I reached the top of the steps behind the stands at Loftus, Ellis Park, Kings Park or Newlands to step into the cauldron of the stadium, it was an inspiring experience.

Nothing can describe the roar of 30,000 to 50,000 voices in an amphitheatre. No loudspeaker can reproduce the effect of tens of thousands of voices from tens of thousands of throats — it is dense and palpable in the air, like a swarm of locusts.

Yes, I know, “if it's too loud, you're too old", but I don't mind the thunderous sounds of Who Let the Dogs Out, Alice and We Will Rock You in a big stadium when there is an injury break. Even Tests are not considered sacred enough these days to escape the tyranny of the colossal loudspeakers.

The thing is, a good rugby match has its own undulating soundtrack. The sudden “whoa!" that ripples through a section of the crowd as Lukhanyo Am slips through a gap right in front of them. The rousing sound of “Beeeaaast!" that arose from all the Springbok supporters every time Tendai Mtawarira touched the ball.

The growling “boooo" when the referee makes an unpopular decision. Even the silences that descend after the big moments, then the echoing shout of one guy in the east stand: “Nooouu die Blooouuu!"

Rather than the dancing impis, the fireworks, the DJ and the pompom girls, give me the South African Military Health Service Band in their green uniforms marching up and down Loftus in a little block formation before the game with a big tuba and a drum in the back row and a plucky leader with a stripe down each trouser leg about four steps in front of the front row of snare drums, swinging a flashy sceptre to the beat of When the Saints Go Marching In.

If it wasn't for rugby, I would never have seen top international athletes playing at the peak of their abilities.

I am more of a supporter than a player, but the highlight of my “playing career" was when I was selected as prop for the under-13B team of the then Eastern Transvaal Union (nowadays the Falcons).

It was 1984 and the England Test team was on the last official international tour in South Africa before complete sporting isolation. The day of the Test, at 10am, Eastern Transvaal under-13B played Transvaal under-13B in a curtain raiser.

There were hardly any spectators in the stands of Ellis Park stadium, which towered above us like peaks. I remember how we ran on bare feet through the incredibly long downhill tunnel from dressing rooms like cathedrals with swimming pools in which Schalk Burger and “Vleis" Visagie would a little later that day refresh their sore bodies.

After Transvaal under-13B gave us a thrashing, a man in a black jacket with a club badge on the pocket told us we could sit on the grass next to the field to watch the Test.

Right there, a few metres in front of us, was a legendary Bok team in their full sweaty glory. There was a tight head with a neck like a cow, Hempies du Toit, the blond Cape speedster, Rob Louw, as one flanker, and the outstanding captain and gentleman, Theuns Stofberg, as the other.

The eighth man was Gerrie Sonnekus, surely the first and only international rugby player to represent his country at scrum half and as eighth man, the effective Divan Serfontein was at scrum half, the explosive Errol Tobias at fly half, the legendary centre pair were John Villet and Danie Gerber, the world's best winger, Carel du Plessis, was on one wing and Chester Williams' cousin, Avril Williams, on the other, and the full-back was the rock-hard and accurate Northern Transvaler, Johan Heunis.

The Springboks thrashed the English at the front and the back and the final score was 35-9, with England unable to score a single try. These days I sometimes wonder whether nostalgic internet uncles who want the Bok backline “to run the ball like Danie Gerber's backline" don't have a rosy, romantic view of the old Boks. But if you view this Test on YouTube, you'll will see Tobias, Villet, Gerber and Du Plessis slicing through the English.

Gerber scored his third try before halftime. I remember the English full-back, Dusty Hare, saying afterwards that Gerber had such a vicious dummy that he couldn't remember whether he passed to the left or the right of him to score his second.

However, the highlight of our day was when the Bok hooker, the Zimbabwean Chris Rogers, pulled a bloody and sweaty bundle of bandages from his head just before halftime and threw it over the touchline to land just in front of us. Four boys swooped simultaneously to claim it as a souvenir. In a rare moment, cleanliness and hygiene carried more weight than rugby for me.

About the English, I mostly only remember their peculiar names. Hare, the winger Tony Swift, the eighth man Chris Butcher, the flanker Peter Winterbottom, a lock named John Fidler, and the hooker, Steve Brain.

If it wasn't for rugby, I would never have seen the Cape as a child.

Every school rugby tour and clinic in the amateur era was actually a plot by a group of male teachers and fathers to escape the supervision of their spouses and any other form of authority. To have to drag 25 unruly boys along on this kind of excursion was a small price to pay.

When I was in standard 5, it was announced with great fanfare that the first rugby team would tour the Cape in the April holidays. A few well-to-do farmers and a doctor or two in town opened their hearts (and wallets), and before we knew it the lot of us in blue tracksuits from the drab, flat and dusty Eastern Highveld were on a Boeing 747 and a few hours later we landed in a glistening wet and vivid green Cape surrounded by grey-blue mountain ranges.

Now, you have to understand, this was decades before any low-cost flights. In our heads, the Cape was as unreachable and distant as Albuquerque for children today. We were a little taken aback by how fresh and bright and clean the Cape was. Like a freshwater pearl.

A rugby clinic was also responsible for me being dragged on a guided tour of Kroonstad's prison a year or so later at the tender age of 14. Hundreds of boys lived for a week in the dormitory of the training centre for warders and during the day we played matches and practised.

In the evenings we played pool in the TV room at the end of the corridor. My whole moral worldview was turned upside down when a lone student warder who had to stay behind to write a test showed us one night how to rig the pool machine with a broomstick and a piece of Prestik so that you couldn't only play for free but could get hold of all of the R2 coins in the machine.

A little piece of my innocence died right there.

If it wasn't for rugby, I would have believed for much longer that we lived in a totally normal country.

I was only 10 when South Africa toured New Zealand in 1981. The so-called protest tour. Wynand Claassen and Nelie Smith's team. It was a star-studded group: Gysie Pienaar, Ray Mordt, Gerrie Germishuys, Carel du Plessis, Danie Gerber, Rob Louw, Theuns Stofberg, Hennie Bekker, Louis Moolman and the great Flippie van der Merwe.

New Zealanders had extra reason to be angry about apartheid. Not only was it a gross human rights violation somewhere across the ocean, but the apartheid government had had the audacity to ban Maoris from touring with the All Blacks in South Africa since 1948. It hit New Zealanders where it hurts the most: rugby.

One of the images that stuck in my head was of the large group of protesters who occupied the field in Hamilton before the match against Waikato on July 25, 1981. It was school holidays and I was visiting my three nephews in Pretoria West.

The four of us were already in front of the television an hour before the match, wrapped in blankets, with tea and biscuits. It must have been 3am, and if I remember correctly we were so excited that we never even went to bed the night before.

Then came the wait to get the protesters off the field. The New Zealand police were clearly not as forceful as their South African counterparts. During the tour, I remember Afrikaans men often saying things like: “They just have to shoot one of those takhare, then we'll see how they run."

By 7am it was light outside and the game had not yet started. It was eventually cancelled. I remember the images of the faces of frustrated men in the crowd, with their tweed coats, woollen caps, gloves and red cheeks from the cold and certainly the whisky.

From an early age we heard that South Africa shares a special bond with New Zealanders because of the legendary battles between the Springboks and the All Blacks. We also heard that they are people like us: hardy yet humble peasants, even though they spoke a version of English.

You could see it on the faces in the crowd too. Our people. Sheep farmers, mechanics, teachers, firemen. But even a child could notice that the protesters were not the typical “commies, hippies and takhare" you saw in newspaper photos of anti-apartheid protests in London and Amsterdam.

There were more women among them than in the crowd, they were younger, and the men's hair was mostly longer, but you could tell they were the children of the men in the stands. You had the feeling this was a family dispute and that it hurt. You could see it was a gentle nation that was not used to division.

Even in a child's mind it left a mark. That tour to New Zealand provided  information to ordinary white people in South Africa, subservient National Party supporters, which the apartheid government could not stop. Why are these decent people so angry with us? Why is the world so against us? Could all the teachers who tell us we're doing the right thing be wrong?

If it wasn't for rugby, I would never have tasted a dirty dom pedro with cheap whisky.

By 1995 I was done with my silly break with rugby. Just as well, because there was a World Cup in South Africa.

It seemed that everyone at Stellenbosch was excited, even the art and drama students, because despite the university's assurance that classes were not suspended for the afternoon on Thursday May 25, students stayed away en masse.

That afternoon you could walk down the dead quiet streets and follow the TV commentary through the windows and doors of houses and apartments.

Our little group of quasi-bohemians watched the Boks' opening game  against Australia at the dubious commune in Cluver Road of an art student friend. The rest of the commune was inhabited by a large number of “work-hard-play-hard" engineering students, including one character who was about to be expelled from the university due to repeated misbehaviour under the influence. Let's call him Derrick.

We arrived in the middle of the day, as the game was scheduled to start at 3pm. However, at 10am the commune residents had already each let a five-litre tub of ice cream melt in the sun and added a bottle of cheap whisky.

When we got there, three shirtless aspiring engineers rushed at us, each carrying an ice cream tub containing a milky, brownish liquid and handing cloudy glasses to us.

By 2.50pm, about 25 wobbly students had taken up positions on ottomans, broken sofas and the sticky carpet in front of two old televisions stacked on top of each other.

One television's screen was so snowy that you could hardly make out an image. The other had an acceptable picture but you had to warm it up with a heater for 15 minutes before it could be switched on.

At exactly 3pm, with Michael Lynagh ready to kick off, our friend Derrick, true to his nature, snuck into the kitchen and turned off the house's main switch. He later claimed that in the excitement of his clever prank he forgot that the television had to be warmed up first.

Despite having only a vague impression of the first 15 minutes, the opening match was the standout game of the 1995 World Cup for me, rather than the famous final, because that's when I started to believe in the Springboks.

On Sunday at 5.45pm, I will be ready to watch the game between South Africa and Scotland with a mixture of fear and excitement. I will be watching it because I really want to, but also because I can't help it.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.