They came, they saw and they rollicked in celebrating a centenary of Varsity rugby

2011-08-20 00:00

THEY came, they saw and they had a rollicking time in celebrating Varsity Rugby’s 100th birthday on the local campus last weekend.

Close to 700 guests of all ages, shapes and sizes attended a function that laid heavy emphasis on celebrating the past and glossed over the formalities.

A derby match between Varsity and Maritzburg Collegians for the York & Lancaster Cup provided a fitting curtain-raiser to the banquet with the students scoring four tries to one, but only squeaking through 20-16 in the closing moments. And spirits were raised even further — if that was possible — by the announcement that the Sharks had beaten Western Province 21-19 in Cape Town.

Such occasions, of course, can be a minefield, either painfully extended by auctions or hijacked by well-meaning guest speakers, mouldy “when-we’s” determined to endlessly trawl a bygone age.

But this was different and the floorshow was restricted to a panel discussion involving former Springboks Tom Bedford, Mark Andrews and Wynand Claassen, Test referee Craig Joubert and former Maritzburg Varsity player, coach and lecturer Jim de Jager. Former Natal cricketer and rugby player Dave Pearse expertly kept the answers brief and to the point.

Even the pod of drinkers around the pub paused to listen when the panel was asked about the Boks’ chances at the World Cup.

Joubert, who had been in charge of the All Black-Wallaby Tri-Nations Test in Auckland just days before, is convinced the Springboks have a real chance of retaining the title.

“You cannot believe the expectation in New Zealand and the All Blacks will be under massive pressure to win. I think the Boks can beat them in the semi-final in Auckland.”

Andrews said the Springboks will certainly have the experience, but he is concerned they might lack the hunger.

“You need guys who are prepared to run through brick walls for the cause and I don’t know if the current team still has that.”

Bedford said the most organised and best balanced team (the All Blacks) would win and Jimmy de Jager agreed, citing the New Zealanders’ superior scrum as a decisive factor.

Joubert said the question he is most frequently asked as a referee is why All Black flank and captain Richie McCaw, the breakdown mechanic, was not blown out of every game he played in.

“The reason is that McCaw is very clever. He plays right on the edge.”

Joubert said McCaw never gave the referee an easy option by blatantly breaking the law.

“If you do penalise him he looks all puzzled. If you don’t penalise him, the rest of the rugby world is puzzled.”

The university came to the party, helping with funding, while two members of the executive were present, but this did not stop Bedford who showed that, even after all these years, some things do not change

It was back in 1974 — after he had captained a spirited Natal against the unbeaten British Lions at King’s Park — that Bedford spoke at the post-match function and famously welcomed the Springbok selectors to “the Last Outpost of the British Empire” while solemnly lifting two fingers on his right hand.

This time the 69-year-old Bedford was less confrontational, but he did say how “disappointed” he was that the vice-chancellor of the University, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, had turned down his invitation to join him at this important function, one which had attracted distinguished guests (and others) from around the world.

It was the only serious note on what was the most relaxed of evenings, a memorable stroll — for some a stumble — down memory lane.

•••••••••••

It should be prescribed reading for Springbok coach Peter de Villiers as he prepares his charges for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

Dan Retief’s recently published The Springboks and the Holy Grail is a thoroughly readable history of South Africa’s involvement in the four Rugby World Cups since 1995.

Retief, one of the country’s most respected rugby writers, has the background knowledge, both of South African rugby and the politics of the country, and is well qualified to write this intriguing account.

The road that Retief has chosen is a familiar one to South African rugby followers, but he brings a freshness and liveliness to the story with numerous in-depth interviews and meticulous research. He has, for goodness sake, even chatted to the pilot (Laurie Kay) about the challenge of flying that 747 just metres above Ellis Park moments before the 1995 final.

Retief, in his easy style, provides the autobiographical link between the four campaigns. Often taken into the confidence of those directly involved, he provides new and informed insight into the controversies, dramas and moments of triumph which are a part of Springbok rugby.

And, boy, the twin imposters have dogged the Springboks over the past 16 years. The extraordinary, heady triumph of 1995, the product of Kitch Christie’s organisation and careful planning, gave way to the folly of 1999 when Nick Mallett’s infatuation with golden — but injured — boy Bob Skinstad saw Gary Teichmann dumped as the Boks’ challenge was derailed.

The 2003 campaign, doomed to fail, took place against a depressing backdrop of racial infighting and Kamp Staaldraad, but Jake White’s plan came together in Paris in 2007 when a talented team, crowded with world-class players, took the Webb Ellis Cup.

Retief ends with his 10 Commandments, the ingredients he believes are essential to the team aiming to win the World Cup.

They are an astute coach, an exceptional captain, a hard core of superstars, a supreme goalkicker, a consistent flyhalf, a deep well of experience, unwavering discipline, a professional back-up staff, unflagging team spirit and exceptional fitness.

The current Springboks certainly meet some of the requirements, but fail in others, with serious questions being asked about their fitness and the ability of their coaching staff. And here we are, three days from the RWC squad announcement, and we are still not sure who will play at flyhalf.

The omens are not good.

The Springboks and the Holy Grail by Dan Retief.(published by Zebra Press, Cape Town). R220.

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