/ 10 September 2023

The Springboks, Mr Barnes, Ma Zandile and James Small

Cheslin Kolbe, Siya Kolisi and Herschel Jantjies with the trophy during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Champions Tour on November 11, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

My hometown of Pietermaritzburg lays claim to perhaps the best rugby school in the country, Maritzburg College. I can already hear my cousin from the supposedly “real” Kwazulu-Natal capital in Durban violently disputing this. The game carried a fair amount of importance in my little town and on the surrounding hills where it was played on the green fields of some of the most celebrated private schools in the country such as Hilton College and MichaelHouse.

But for us in the less lushy green parts of my town, in the “coloured” township of Woodlands, it was the game of football that carried importance. On hockey grounds that were converted to football fields, my young self dreamed of being the next “Doctor” or “Gazza”. I played with the famous Moon brothers (I doubt they’d remember me) but it’s my tall legend along with a short trial at Ria Stars in Limpopo (a story for another day). 

Rugby at that point in my life was left for the others, until our primary school teacher, Mr Barnes, made us play the game instead of whatever the usual package of sporting activities we normally did. I was horrendous at forward rolls, or was it high-jump and its awkward approach that provided so much comedic material. 

Anyway I digress, it was when playing the sport for that physical education that I enjoyed the free running of the sport, ducking and diving my way through the field with the “swagger” of a midfield player raised on South African football fields. (You are going to have to bear with the “hubris” that comes with any failed sportsman when talking of their early years.)

There’s just a freedom with just putting a ball in your armpits and running to the tryline that I can identify with the founders of the game in England. There’s strategy to getting that tryline, but the methodology is a whole lot less involved than trying to curl a football past a goalkeeper guarding a 7.3 metre long goalpost. Mr Barnes introduced something new, and my immediate thoughts were of just how I could play the game more than the 30 minutes afforded every other week during physical training, because, as I said, football was the daily bread.

At this point, Springboks were not a feature of my life nor was Bafana Bafana, as the national football team would only come into existence in 1992. The only professional team I was dreaming (the operative word) of representing was the local team of Leicester FC and then Kaizer Chiefs; no dreams of anything purporting to be a national team — it didn’t exist in my zeitgeist. That was until I crossed over the highway that runs through Pietermaritzburg and into what were formerly schools for white children.

It’s here in 1993 that one was introduced to the Springbok emblem and got an understanding of its importance to the white South African diaspora. The fields of my new school were rugby grounds, splendid and lush in the summer months and rough rugged in winter, where Linpark High’s lack of prowess in rugby was exposed by virtually every other school, especially Voortrekker High. Mostly played by white boys and a sprinkling of black children, including my best friend, Sifiso, I thought this was my chance to finally play the game.

I made excuses for the lack of transformation in the sport on the basis that I understood that all of us of a darker shade in that school were an experiment in integration that our parents had signed us up too. In time and in some far off distant future, Linpark High’s first XV would be predominantly black — it’s simple arithmetic. But just as I was gearing up for my participation in the sport, excited by Sifiso’s brilliant story of meeting legendary Sharks winger James Small, my beloved and late mother, Ma Zandile, stepped in. 

We were watching the Ivory Coast versus Tonga game in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, where Max Brito was paralysed. Let’s just say it wasn’t the right game to watch with my mother, who did not mince her words and told me that my fledgling rugby career will not in any way be supported. Support was critical in that it would require being ferried across my little town to practise and to games over weekends. My neighbourhood is where I would stay and football, and its more complex methodology, was what would be pursued. The fact that my name hasn’t been accompanied by a stadium PA playing Ice, Ice Baby like a new favourite, Declan Rice, over the past weekend says enough about that pursuit.

Having reached a premature end to my rugby playing career, I became an armchair fan of rugby, and in particular the Springboks, as Linpark High offered very few highs. Small, Henry Honiball and the Rolls Royce of fullbacks, Andre Joubert, were my favourites, boosted by their Natal roots. The fact that they were white mattered little, because, as I said earlier, transformation was inevitable. 

In the years that followed, however, that inevitably seemed more and more of a distant future for the Springboks. While it mattered to me — and, I would suggest, to a majority of South Africans — that new exciting black players emerge, the coaches the Springboks employed seemed not to care. Players such as Gcobane Bobo, who’ll comment on the Rugby World Cup this year on Supersport, emerged and were quickly spat out. There’s a long list of these players that I got so excited about, including men such as Owen Nkumane, who just didn’t get the support of provincial and national structures. While transformation was accepted on the wingers, it’s in and around the scrum where we all know the game is decided and that’s where I was waiting for that inevitably of transformation.

The 2007 World Cup win and the captaincy of John Smit was great, along with the magical play of Fourie Du Preez in particular. I was there in full support but had to suspend my reservations about Jake White and his indifference. The South African rugby community likes to forget about a certain Pieter de Villers but he knew his task was simply to keep the World Cup winning side together and just keep winning until his time was up.

After De Villers’ axing, the Springboks came to represent all that was wrong with our country and its transformation journey; the rugby didn’t get better and the faces didn’t change. Some of our better players were being lured into European teams and had begun to give up on the Springboks, like its supporters, just as the country was engulfed by tales of corruption feeding into a confidence crisis from which we are still struggling to emerge. 

That was until Rassie Erasmus, who took the struggles of this sometimes rather exhausting first decades of nationhood and used it as inspiration for his man management in the Springbok team and didn’t shy away from transformation. Understanding that it’s really not a bad word and, used correctly, something that could spur growth. As we prepare to defend the World Cup, we sit in a position of real depth. A hero of the class of 2019, Makazola Mapimpi may find game time limited, as well as Handré Pollard — especially if Mannie Libbok gets his penalty kicking game on point. It’s a marked difference from the 2003 World Cup, when we were so desperate for Bob Skinstad to be fit enough.

Erasmus, along with his captain, Siya Kolisi’s generation of players, have managed to deepen our bonds with rugby in a manner that I thought inevitable as a young boy and started to believe impossible at a certain stage. Rassie is special and from pitches that certainly look a whole lot more like the pitches the vast majority of his countrymen have bruised their knees playing all manner of sport.

So here I am, less conflicted, and hoping the Springboks show the many dissenters in the Northern Hemisphere about the brutish strength of our game and, forgetting the talent and flair of Duane Vermeulen, that we play the only country that plays the rugby that can defeat the All Blacks — still the benchmark of the game. For now…