What a difference four years make. On Friday South Africa take on England at the Stade de France, confident that they have the beating of the old enemy. Four years ago the England team had an aura of invincibility about it, but today it looks like one of those household implements reassembled in haste, with two or three parts left over that don’t seem to have a genuine function.
Take the case of Mike Catt, for instance, the man selected to play at inside centre for England on Friday. The Port Elizabeth-born utility back turns 36 on Monday, and over the years has played every back line position bar scrumhalf for England. He has a World Cup-winners medal, but will be remembered by most in this country as the player that Jonah Lomu ran over in the 1995 World Cup semifinal.
Incredibly, 12 years after that extremely public humiliation, Catt is still in the England team, and almost old enough to be the father of his opposite number, the 20-year-old Francois Steyn. He is a year older than Os du Randt, the Springboks’ only remaining connection to the blessed class of ’95.
Du Randt and Catt also played in the 1999 World Cup quarterfinal at Stade de France and that’s the game that will be on the minds of all who were there that day, when the two teams run on to the field in St Denis.
Indeed, anyone looking for omens might consider the fact that Jonny Wilkinson was dropped by England for that game and only emerged from the bench on the hour, by which time the boot of Jannie de Beer had settled matters.
Springbok coach Jake White is still expecting to see Wilkinson in the number 10 jersey, but it is more likely that he will wear the number 22 instead.
Who now recalls why the England selectors preferred the prosaic boot of Paul Grayson to Wilkinson at flyhalf? Perhaps as many as remember why De Beer took to the field for the Springboks ahead of Henry Honiball. What mattered was that De Beer kicked 12 from 12 on the day: two conversions, five penalties and five drop goals.
According to many critics at the time, all England had to do was play a structured game built around a mighty pack and a kicking flyhalf. At half-time South Africa led 16-12, but when they emerged from the tunnel at the beginning of the second half something had changed. Instead of attempting to beat England at their own game, Joost van der Westhuizen, the captain and scrumhalf, decided to take matters into his own hands.
He and De Beer had finished a training session with some drop-goal practice in the week and now was the time to put it to the test. De Beer kicked the first three of his drops in a time span of just five minutes. It has often been said, usually by forwards, that winning with drop goals is cheating. It’s too easy, they say, in which case why doesn’t everyone do it and was Wilkinson cheating in the 2003 final or Joel Stransky in 1995?
De Beer’s kicks sucked the lifeblood out of an England team that could not find a way to close him down. After the game a member of the press asked him about his deep religious beliefs. De Beer’s reply set a standard never matched by the legions of sports people who wear their convictions on their sleeves. He said: ”God gave me the talent, but the forwards gave me the ball.”
One week later he did it all again against Australia at Twickenham. Everyone remembers Stephen Larkham’s drop goal that settled the tie in extra time, but few recall De Beer’s kick in the sixth minute of injury time that made extra time a necessity in the first place — 10m in from touch, 36m out, to retain South Africa’s unbeaten record in World Cup matches.
It is sometimes given to ordinary men to be extraordinary for a moment. Those two games, the penultimate and final games of a 13-Test career, fixed De Beer’s name in history. Between then and now lies the disgrace that was 2003. Now is the time for South Africa to achieve. Carpe diem, manne.