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Selling out or scrumming down?

One blustery, cloud-swept Saturday morning in May, I interviewed Morgan Cushe, the tearaway Swallows and Leopards flanker of the 1970s. I met him at the Wild Rapids Spur in Uitenhage, driving through the industrial badlands of Port Elizabeth to get there, pleased to be passing the tyre factories and Volkswagen assembly plants rather than working in them.

Cushe was over an hour late. I held off from ordering two trailblazer breakfasts and hunkered down to wait. When he eventually sat down to tell his story, he spoke for nearly two hours. I found him mildly sardonic, engaging and proud. Last week, a friend told me that he had died.

Depending on your politics, he was either the worst form of apartheid collaborator or a subsequently neglected trailblazer, unlucky not to have been awarded a Springbok blazer, as, say, Errol Tobias was on the 1981 tour of New Zealand.

No more than an average-sized man, Cushe boxed before playing rugby.

"At first I was not impressed with rugby," he said. "Then, when I was knocked out [as a junior middleweight], I decided to play. Still, I didn't give up boxing completely."

Freewheeling play
Cushe's dad, Simon, named his son Eric when he was born in 1948. As he grew up, Eric became Morgan, in honour of the legendary Welsh flyhalf, Cliff, who toured South Africa with the 1955 Lions. Black rugby at the time was all freewheeling romance, blithely unconcerned with the technicalities of the scrum or the rudiments of power.

The players were seldom as big and powerful as their white counterparts, so they ran the ball, tackled furiously and supported each other as best they could. Good ball handling and a kind of brave insouciance was paramount.

"I looked around at Swallows [when I arrived] and they had two 'Springbok' centres and I said: 'No, no, no', it would take me years to be a centre in that team. I looked around and saw two old flanks. They were good but going down, so the coach said it was a good idea for me to be a flank."

As a young player, Cushe frequently confused the ring with the field, squaring up to teammates and belting opponents.

He was taken in hand by some of Swallows' older guard and taught discipline, stoicism and self-control. He admired Maori flank Waka Nathan – the "black panther" – and learned from Korsten May, a fellow flank at Swallows, who was quick and a good fetcher with a sound defence.

International experience
In July 1974, squashed between the second and third Tests, Cushe played for the Leopards against the visiting British Lions in Mdantsane. He maintains that the Lions took no chances against the Leopards, choosing their best team, with the exception of fullback JPR Williams.

Their selection policy was vindicated, because the men in red won 56-10, playing in front of 35 000 delirious fans unsure of whether to cheer for the black-shirted homeboys or the visitors. In the end, they probably reached a kind of moral and sporting compromise and did a little bit of both.

"We wanted to play like Fiji," said Cushe wistfully, two plastic tomahawks levitating on the wall next to his head. "We couldn't, because we defended all day."

In a tour notable for the home provinces' and Springboks' inability to score tries (the Boks scored one in four Tests), the Leopards managed to do the next best thing to winning, and scored one of their own. Cushe was at the centre of it.

"I noticed they had only five forwards in the maul while the loose trio would hang back," he told me. "It was going okay, and then I realised that Gareth Edwards, who had a good long pass, would go directly to the loose forwards. They were on our 22 and I went for an intercept because I was now marking them and I was successful. I was running downfield before being tackled by Andy Irvine. I passed to Thomson Magxala, who passed to Charles Mgweba for the try."

Cushe went on to represent the Leopards against the 1976 New Zealanders and played in the Invitation XVs against the All Blacks and the French, who visited in 1975.

Italian style
His happiest tour was arguably to Italy with the Leopards in the months prior to the famous Mdantsane match against the Lions, when the Leopards played against Brescia, Lazio, the Dogi (an invitation side) and the Italians themselves on a six-match tour.

Finding himself in Rome on a day off, the girls chic and the cappuchinos smooth, Cushe spotted a jacket he just had to buy. Speaking no Italian, he looked frantically for the team's bus driver, Luciano, to act as interpreter and find out the price. Luciano was nowhere to be found and at first Cushe lacked the courage to open up a conversation in pidgin Italian, worrying that the jacket might be bought by someone else.

But, eventually, he could wait no longer. He spent most of his meagre allowance on the purchase, bringing it home to South Africa like the blazer he never had.

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