Playing through the pain barrier
J Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. Corné Krige does it with injuries. ‘I’ve never actually sat down and worked it out, but I guess out of eight years as a professional rugby player I’ve missed about two years with injury. And in between I’ve still managed to play 50 odd games for Western Province, 31 Tests and nearly 50 matches for the Stormers. I’m quite proud of that fact and otherwise I’ve been very blessed: I’ve been looked after by the man up there.”
Some might say that Krige has been about as well looked after as the long suffering Job was by ‘the man up there”. Here he was, standing outside the medic’s room, patiently answering my questions before going in for a scan that would reveal the extent of his latest knee injury. It happened during a flying tackle on Reds captain Toutai Kefu, early on in the Stormers disastrous defeat at Newlands last Saturday.
‘I felt it go in mid-air and I’m a bit concerned because it’s a new injury, but after all that’s happened to me down the years I know my body pretty well and I think it might just take a few weeks to get right. Hopefully it won’t be a few months
because this is an important year.”
There was good news and bad news after a second look from specialist Spike Erasmus on Monday. Krige was ruled out for six weeks with a medial colateral ligament strain, effectively ending his Super 12 season. But he may be fit for the
international season in June, beginning with two Tests against Scotland.
The incumbent Springbok captain did not need reminding that he missed the 1999 World Cup with injury and at his current attritional rate, if he misses this year’s event he may never play in the game’s greatest showpiece. Putting such melancholy thoughts aside for the moment, we returned to the long list of previous injuries.
‘At school I dislocated my shoulder and broke my leg, but those are relatively easy injuries to recover from, so that didn’t really affect me. The first one that really set me back was in 1997 when I injured cruciate ligaments in my left leg.”
What he doesn’t mention, of course, is that the 1997 injury happened in the Currie Cup final, the last match of the season. The previous week, newly appointed Springbok coach Nick Mallett had included Krige in his squad for the end of season tour to Europe. Thus denied, Krige had to wait two more years to pull on the green and gold for the first time.
Krige had a topsy-turyvy 1999. The high point was emulating Francois Pienaar in making his Springbok debut as captain. The parallels didn’t stop there, either, for the two men played the same position of open side flank, and both ran on for the first time at Kings Park in Durban. But while Pienaar had to be satisfied with a 20-20 draw against France, Krige could only stare in bemusement at a scoreboard that read South Africa 101 Italy 0, still the highest score recorded by the Springboks. That, however, was as good as it got.
‘Later in ‘99 I did the cruciates and a lot of other ligaments besides in the other leg. Also in ‘99 I broke my jaw when somebody’s head hit me by accident. It was a clean break in two places, but my jaw was wired up for six weeks and through all that time I had to eat through a straw. Psychologically that’s probably the worst injury I’ve ever had.”
So no World Cup and the hard road back to fitness started all over again in 2000. After that, nothing worse than ‘bumps and bruises”, one of those fine euphemisms beloved of rugby players who tend to regard torn hamstrings and broken noses as insignificant flesh wounds that should never be allowed to stop you from diving at the feet of a charging Jonah Lomu.
Then came 2002, the year that began with a bang — a new Springbok coach with faith in Krige’s leadership credentials — and ended with a whimper — the 53-3 defeat by England at Twickenham, South Africa’s largest Test match humiliation.
First of all, the bang. A spectacular one-off Test against Italy in 1999 had hardly prepared Krige for his role as the officially appointed Springbok captain.
‘It has changed my life. In this country you have the president and not far below him seems to come the Springbok captain. People expect a lot from you as a role model and as a player.”
It was the role model that came in for criticism last year when Krige took a six-week holiday and ended up bagging a buffalo. ‘I fractured my sternum in last year’s Tri-Nations and the doctor told me to get an operation done on a thumb ligament while I wasn’t playing. While I was recuperating I was invited to go on a buffalo hunt in Zambia. It was an amazing experience, but I took a hiding for it afterwards when You magazine published a piece on it. People went berserk, saying how can the Springbok captain kill an animal?
‘So maybe I was a bit reckless in allowing the photo of my buffalo to be published, but it’s a passion of mine. I grew up in Zambia and went hunting from a very young age and if it’s in your blood it’s in your blood. I’ve just learned to keep it a bit more discreet these days.”
You have to know about Krige’s childhood and family to understand that he is about as far from John Huston in White Hunter, Black Heart as it is possible to get. His parents are divorced, but both still live in Zambia and father, Corrie, still farms in Lusaka with Corné‘s elder brothers, Bennie and Pierre.
It was on the farm that I watched Corné lead the Springboks on to Newlands for the second Test against Wales in June last year. The venue was an underground cinema, constructed beneath the braai area, and the audience numbered about 40 family and friends. The lights went down, the sound went up and it was almost like being at the game.
Corrie Krige explained: ‘We saved money to go to the 1999 World Cup, but when Corné got injured we decided to stay at home and use it for something else. We decided that if we weren’t going to go to the tournament we’d like to be able to watch it in style, so we put the money towards building the cinema and buying the big screen and projector. Now we get a crowd for every Stormers game and for Test matches. Everyone brings something and we have a braai and a party after the game.”
I was the lucky recipient of the party last June, with the Krige family running the bar and everyone mucking in at the braai. But just to remind us all that Africa is still a tough place to farm, the festivities came to an abrupt halt when Pierre Krige came in holding one of the family dogs. It had been bitten by a mamba and
despite the presence of the local vet, was dead within the hour.
‘Snakes are a fact of life out here,” said Pierre. ‘Two guys came to the farm last year asking if they could catch some snakes. I said okay, but I haven’t seen any for a long time. They were gone within half an hour with a sack full of 40 snakes — all caught within 50m of where we’re standing!”
All three Krige boys were sent to school in South Africa, but while Pierre and Bennie went to agricultural college, Corné went to Paarl Boys High, one of the country’s seminal rugby breeding grounds. So it was no surprise when I asked Pierre what kept Corné in South Africa that he rubbed his fingers and thumb together, smiled and said: ‘Money.”
Because of his career, Krige sees little of his family, but said: ‘While I miss them, in a sense I grew up without them, because they sent me away to school. One thing that my dad did, which I’m reaping the benefits of now, was to enrol me in English classes. We only spoke Afrikaans at home and when I came to Paarl I couldn’t speak English.”
Yet another parallel with Pienaar, the first Springbok captain to need fluent English. Pienaar once told me that on his first Springbok tour to Australia in 1993 he was more nervous about speaking English in the press conferences than he was about playing. Having negotiated the first one at the airport in Sydney he was asked for a one-on-one by an Aussie journalist.
‘He asked me how I felt walking down the tunnel on to Kings Park for my first cap and I said I was really emotional and had a knob in my throat! As opposed to a lump, that is.”
If you really wanted to stretch the Pienaar/Krige analogy you might also point to the fact that large sections of the South African public did not believe that either was the best man for the job either of open side flanker or captain. Pienaar still gets that drivel despite the fact that he hoisted the William Webb-Ellis trophy. Krige gets it because he plays his rugby at Newlands and for some that is simply unforgivable.
With six weeks off, Krige once again has time to mull over the past and look ahead to the future. The past is more painful than any knee injury, because although Jannes Labuschagne was the man blamed for the Boks’ humiliation against England when he was sent off 14 minutes into the match, in the week that followed a controversial ‘video nasty” of Krige’s play was aired by Sky Television.
The video showed various acts of skulduggery that were commonplace in the dark places of the game in the years before the all-intrusive cameras cleaned it up. It also proved conclusively that Andre Pretorius’s concussion came as the direct result of a Krige punch aimed at an Englishman, giving the lie to Rudolph Straeuli’s post-match statement: ‘Our players did not concuss themselves.” Six months have now passed and Krige had some trenchant comments to make.
‘I was more upset that we lost the game, but what upset me about the video was that on the original footage they couldn’t find anything. I don’t know how widely this is known, but there are a massive amount of cameras available to the England coach at Twickenham. The figure I’ve heard is 21, but there are maybe more.”
To put that in perspective, Supersport televises the Super 12 with 11 cameras, a figure that can grow to 13 or 14 for a Test match. Sky uses 16 for Test matches and the Rugby Football Union augment these with cameras of their own. It is, of course, a lot easier for England to have hidden cameras, because all their home games are played at Twickenham. For SA Rugby to do likewise they’d have to agree to play every Springbok Test at, say, Ellis Park.
‘So Clive Woodward has a lot of cameras at his disposal and he found a lot of things on me. But I bet he also found a lot of things on Martin Johnson and a lot on Neil Back. It happens in rugby and a lot of people don’t want to hear that, but it is a physical sport where you’ve got to dominate. There’s a fine line and often in the attempt to dominate you step over that line.
‘I felt it was unfair that I’d been taken out and made an example of, but sometimes those things act as a corrective in life. You end up saying to yourself that when you focus on the man too much you don’t play the ball. In fact I was less upset about
being singled out for dirty play than I was by the criticism that I had not been influential enough as a player.
‘You’ve got to be realistic and look at the team we had. Without pointing fingers at anyone — because everyone tried their butts off — we had a very inexperienced squad that went over there and got a hiding. In that scenario it’s very difficult for me to be influential, but I take the personal criticism on the chin and try and learn from those kind of things.”
One of the things Krige seems to have learned concerns mortality. The game, it seems, has come full circle. In the days of true amateurism players were forced out of rugby through economic necessity.
‘They couldn’t afford to hang around earning boot money if they had families to support and career ladders to climb aboard. Nowadays it is the volume of matches and the sheer physical battering they promote that is curtailing careers.
Krige has taken a bigger battering than most due to his role in the side, and we haven’t even talked about the worst injury of the lot, the one that left him with no sensation in the middle finger of his left hand, meaning that it has to be taped to his ring finger in every game. That’s because it didn’t happen on the rugby field.
‘The finger was the result of a car accident. I was on my way to practice and what happened is still a bit of a mystery to me. I guess I wasn’t concentrating and when I looked up there was a car stopped dead in the middle of the road, waiting to turn right. It was on a highway just outside Paarl and the car was turning into a farm road. When I saw it I swerved to avoid it and ended up rolling the car. I injured my hand quite badly and I was very shaken up, but amazingly there was no other serious damage.”
That, of course, depends on what you call serious. But even Krige recognises that the game is catching up with him. ‘From a very young age I said that I wanted to play rugby until I was 30. Maybe I knew something in advance, because I’m 28 now and I’m feeling great and I think I’m playing good rugby, but I’m at that point when I wake up in the morning I feel my body is a little stiff and tired and I feel a little old.
‘I always said that I’d like to play overseas for two years, but maybe I’ll have to reassess that. My aim right now is to make the World Cup, go there and do my best to help South Africa win it, and then retire from international rugby. Maybe I’ll still look at going overseas, but maybe I’ll stay here with Western Province. After all, this is where I was really born and bred as a rugby player and I have a huge passion to play for Province.
‘There is an option for me to do that, which is nice, but on the other hand I think I’d find it tough playing for Western Province and the Stormers and not playing for South Africa. But that’s a decision that I’d have to make in my own mind and with my wife Justine, because it would obviously mean that I’d be able to stay at home a little more.”
It’s a tantalising thought, isn’t it? Rudolph Straeuli knocking on the door of the Krige house and asking Justine: ‘Can Corné come out to play?”
Let’s hope he can for just a little while longer.